Get patients back on track as a physical therapist

Understanding the physical therapist job description and how these professionals spend their days might help you decide if it's the perfect career for you.

What Is a Physical Therapist?

A physical therapist is an expert in skilled therapy who develops a plan of care for his or her clients and assists them with reaching their goals. Katey Eisenstein, a physical therapist in her third year of practice, explains that "[t]he main goal of physical therapy is to not only decrease pain, but to educate the patient on how to manage his [or] her symptoms without the need of skilled therapy."

In other words, therapists guide their patients toward self-sufficiency. According to Eisenstein, "[p]atients are reevaluated every month to determine if they are meeting goals." When a patient fails to progress in treatment, the therapist must choose a new approach.

However, a therapist isn't just a personal trainer for the injured or ill. These professionals advise their patients about activities to carry out at home, such as exercises or specific movements. They might also communicate with physicians and other health care providers to assist with making health-related decisions for patients.

Physical therapists help patients regain their flexibility, strength, range of motion, and confidence after an illness or injury.

Where Can You Go as a Physical Therapist?

Every physical therapist has his or her own unique set of skills and interests. Some therapists work with a specific subset of the population, such as an age group (e.g. children or the elderly). They can also specialize in areas like sports injuries or focus on a particular type of therapy, such as massage.

When asked to describe her work, Eisenstein said, "I work in an outpatient rehabilitation center, specializing in aquatic therapy. I work with primarily an orthopedic population, but occasionally I will treat patients with neurological conditions ... Treatment may include therapeutic exercise, neuromuscular reeducation, manual therapy, modalities, or a combination."

Some therapists follow in Eisenstein's tracks and work in outpatient facilities. Others take a position on staff at a hospital or live-in care facility, and still more work with patients in their homes.

In addition to working with patients on exercises and other therapies, physical therapists also spend time on paperwork. According to Centra, most therapists spend 80 percent of their time working one-on-one with patients and 20 percent on administrative tasks, such as writing reports and filing insurance forms.

Eisenstein calls paperwork her least favorite part of the job. She notes that it's challenging to "get documentation done in a timely manner."

What Education Does a Physical Therapist Need?

As a physical therapist, Eisenstein reports that you likely have a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree, which takes "[three] years beyond a traditional Bachelors Degree." You'll learn how to work with patients, evaluate injuries, understand human anatomy, and more. You must then pass the National Physical Therapy Examination, which tests your knowledge and expertise.

You can prepare for a career as a physical therapist in other ways, too. For instance, during your undergraduate work, you might look for a part-time job in a physical therapy office or rehabilitation center. These facilities hire assistants, receptionists, and other staff to ensure the program runs efficiently.

Eisenstein also recommends "[shadowing] physical therapists in different settings." You'll learn about the wide range of environments in which therapists can work so you can make an informed decision during your job hunt. For instance, if you get cabin fever while working in the same place every day, you might want to switch to a job in home care so you experience a more dynamic work atmosphere.

According to Eisenstein, "There are many different settings that you can work in, including outpatient, inpatient rehab, home health, acute care, and skilled nursing. There will always be opportunities in this field."

How Much Do Physical Therapists Make?

In the United States, the average physical therapist brings home $87,500 per year, though professionals at the beginning of their careers can expect a more realistic average of $61,000. Some parts of the country offer higher wages for professionals in physical therapy. For instance, therapists in Las Vegas, Nevada, earn an average of $111,500, while those in Phoenix, Arizona, earn an average annual salary of $97,306. Other excellent places to expand your earning potential include Chicago, Illinois; Austin, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio.

In addition to the excellent earning potential, job security also comes with a career in physical therapy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), this career should grow 34 percent between 2014 and 2024, which is "much faster" than the growth rate for all careers combined. As the population ages and more people secure health insurance, demand for physical therapists increases substantially.

What Skills Do Physical Therapists Need?

If you're going to excel in physical therapy jobs, you need excellent communication skills. Since you spend most of your time working one-on-one with patients, you must know how to understand their speech and body language and to express yourself effectively.

Physical therapists also have to interpret their patients' words. People don't always know how to describe their symptoms or articulate their concerns because they're not familiar with human anatomy and medical jargon. As a therapist, you'll read between the lines so you can provide effective treatment.

Task management will also play a big part in your career. Eisenstein cites "managing a busy schedule" as one of the key struggles she faces daily. She loves "helping people reach their goals," but you must manage your time wisely so you don't fall behind in your obligations. For instance, Eisenstein sees about 15 patients per day. After that, she has to attend to paperwork, which she sometimes takes home when she can't finish it during business hours.

If you're looking to continue a rewarding career in the medical field, consider moving up in your career as a physical therapist.