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How To Become a Physical Therapist

How to become a physical therapist in the US

Have you considered becoming a Physical Therapist as a career choice? This blog post is all about what physical therapy is, how it came to be and how you can become a physical therapist.

What do physical therapists do and how did PT start?

At the core, Physical Therapists help people. It’s really that simple. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

Physical therapists (PTs) are movement experts who optimize quality of life through prescribed exercise, hands-on care, and patient education. Physical therapists teach patients how to prevent or manage their condition so that they will achieve long-term health benefits. PTs examine each individual and develop a plan, using treatment techniques to promote the ability to move, reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability. In addition, PTs work with individuals to prevent the loss of mobility before it occurs by developing fitness- and wellness-oriented programs for healthier and more active lifestyles. State licensure is required in each state in which a physical therapist practices.

American Physical Therapy Association Tweet

Wikipedia states that physicians like Hippocrates and Galen are believed to be the first practitioners of PT as early as 460BC. The first documented origins of physical therapy as a professional group or type date back to 1813 with the age of modern PT being established at the end of the 19th Century. In 1921 what is now the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) was formed. Since that time, the profession and grown and formalized into what we know it has today.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for 2018 was $87,930 per year and the job growth outlook for 2018 to 2028 is much faster than the average for all jobs (22% for PT vs 5% for all jobs combined on average). It’s a growing profession.

What sorts of settings do Physical Therapists work in?

PTs work in a variety of different settings in the healthcare world including some of the following examples:

  • Outpatient Private Practice
  • Acute Care Settings
  • Rehab and Subacute Care Settings
  • Skilled Nursing Facilities
  • Schools
  • Wellness Settings
  • Home Health
  • Workplace Setings
  • Government and Military
  • Research and Academia
  • Hospice
  • Traveling setting
  • Telehealth setting

There are many different settings within PT. As you consider becoming a PT you can also consider what type of setting is of interest to you and gives you a path to a rewarding career.

The basics of being a PT

In the US, you must hold a doctorate in physical therapy in order to practice and treat patients. This is a relatively recent change when the minimum degree was elevated to the level of doctorate (DPT). The Masters in Physical Therapy (MPT) and the Masters of Science in Physical Therapy are now no longer offered to interested individuals.

How to get there?

Before you can do a DPT program, you’ll need to lay the ground work. There are several different options:
 
1) Bachelor’s degree – most programs do require a bachelor’s degree in order to apply. While technically an undergrad degree doesn’t have to be in a science or health related field, there are some prerequisites that have to be met such as anatomy, physiology, chemistry, etc. These are easiest met with a related degree and that’s why biology, kinesiology, and psychology as popular undergraduate fields of study for those who wan to become physical therapists.
 
2) Freshman Entry and Other Options – some programs allow a student to go directly from high school into a program where undergraduate prerequisites are completed and then admission to the DPT program is guaranteed provided that a minimum GPA and other things are met. Some other programs offer undergrad and perquisites in a 3 year program followed by DPT program.
 
Some programs may also allow prerequisites to be met at a Community College. Beyond the required coursework, as with most graduate programs, there are other requirements such as taking the GRE, references, interviews, etc.
 
The best advice is to look up programs you may wish to apply to. This way you can see their specific requirements and figure out how that fits in with your plans or existing coursework/degrees.
 
However you get there and wherever you may choose to go, it’s crucial that you pick an accredited program. Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) accreditation is a key factor because if you attend a school that is not accredited, you will not able to site for licensing exams and that means you won’t be able to practice.

Apply for a program

Applying for a DPT program is all done in one central place. The American Physical Therapy Association offers a system called Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service or PTCAS for short. The good news is that in one centralized place, you can apply to a variety of schools.
 
Of course, you’ll want to consider things like cost, academic rigor, location, campus amenities and more in your decision making process.

Taking the National Physical Therapy Examination

One you get through the education portion (or are within 90 days of your graduation date), you can sit for the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE). This is the exam is offered by the Federation of the State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT for short).

The test is comprised of 5 sections with 50 questions each for a total of 250 questions. Out of the 250 questions, only 200 are scored. The questions are multiple choice. The range of scores on the test is 200-800, with 600 being a passing score.

The test is administered at testing locations nationwide. You can take the test anywhere even if you plan to practice in another state. The test is offered 4 times a year, generally, and costs $485 as of this blog post. There may be other fees for certain states.

The FBPT has a great FAQ on the exam. You can check it out here.

Licensure & Practicing

You will also need to be licensed in the state you wish to practice in. Each state will have a process and requirements. The good news is that there is now a big and growing list of states that will honor other state’s licenses. This is called the PT Compact. It’s been immensely valuable in allowing PTs to be mobile and practice in a variety of locations with less red tape. According to the APTA, about 21 states have signed on so far.
 
There is a great map shared by the FSBPT, you can see it here.

The Bottom Line

Being a physical therapist gives you the opportunity to make differences in people’s live everyday. It’s a process to become a Physical Therapist but with hard work and dedication, you can get there!

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