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How To Become A Physical Therapist

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Physical therapists save lives and enjoy fulfilling careers, but they also undergo rigorous and extensive training before doing what they do. Apart from the technical skills and knowledge, a physical therapist must also possess a great deal of interpersonal skills and empathy to become successful,

If you’ve ever considered a career in physical therapy and would like to know what it takes to become one, you’re in the right place. Below is a comprehensive guide regarding everything you need to know to become a certified physical therapist.

Becoming a Physical Therapist - Overview

There is quite a lot to do to kick-start a career as a physical therapist. From basic educational requirements to licensing, doctorate programs, and optional continuing education, there is no denying that the journey can take time. Still, in the end, it is usually more than worth it.

Also, it should be said that even though all physical therapists perform the same underlying duties, specialties are not the same, and the steps toward attaining these specialties may differ significantly.

Steps to Becoming a Physical Therapist

So, yes, the path to becoming a physical therapist isn’t always the same for everyone. Nonetheless, a handful of steps are common in every path. Below is a detailed outline of these steps.

Step 1: Earn a bachelor’s degree

Before choosing a doctorate program in physical therapy, one of the significant perquisites is to earn a bachelor’s degree in a health-related field. It is essential to select coursework that includes biology, physiology, chemistry, pharmacology, musculoskeletal sciences, and other related science courses.

Step 2: Choose and graduate from a DPT Program

The next step is to choose a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree/program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).

These programs typically last three years.

DPT programs include anatomy, cellular histology, neuroscience, biomechanics, and pharmacology courses. According to APTA, 80% of the DPT curriculum is didactic, and lab study, and the remaining 20% is dedicated to clinical education. A physical therapy student also gains hands-on clinical experience during the program.

Most DPT programs are applied through the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS).

Step 3: Pass the NPTE

All states require that all physical therapists be licensed to become practitioners. This means all physical therapists are required to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) as administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. The examination is a computer-based exam and comprises 250 multiple-choice questions in five sections. It is offered four times yearly (January, April, July, and October).

Candidates are allowed to take the exams three times a year.

Step 4: Fulfill State Requirements

Licensure requirements for physical therapists usually change from state to state. A physical therapist must pass a state licensure exam to receive the appropriate state physical therapist license to practice in a state.

Step 5: Complete Residency/Fellowship (Optional)

A physical therapist clinical fellowship is a planned program of post-professional education for those in physical therapy. A physical therapy fellowship is perfect for physical therapists who have completed their residency and wish to focus on a specialty in an advanced clinical area.

According to APTA, opting for a residency ensures credibility with patients and demonstrates a commitment to employers. Apart from gaining technical skills and experience from opting for residency/fellowship, the clinical hours gained during this period are needed to earn certification should a physical therapist opt to be board-certified.

Step 6: Get Board Certified

Getting Board Certified as a licensed and experienced physical therapist is optional but helps develop more excellent skills and knowledge related to a particular field. The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers certifications in 10 specialty areas, including orthopedics, clinical electrophysiology, oncology, pediatrics, neurology, and others.

Requirements for board certification vary from one specialty to another. Still, the typical condition involves passing a certification exam, completing 2000 observation hours, or completing an American Physical Therapy Association-accredited residency program in the specialty area.

Duties of a Physical Therapist

Patients’ conditions vary, which means the work of physical therapists will also do the same, seeing as treatment plans are always designed around each patient’s medical issues.

For example, limitation in mobility caused by injury/accidents is different from limitation in mobility caused by Alzheimer’s, so naturally, the treatment and rehabilitation plan for each patient will differ.

Still, there are a few underlying duties typical to all physical therapists. The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines these roles as follows:

  • Diagnosing patients’ functions and movements by observing and listening to their concerns.
  • Reviewing patient medical history and notes from doctors, surgeons, or other healthcare workers.
  • Developing individualized plans of care for patients, outlining the patient’s goals and the expected outcomes of the plans
  • Evaluating and recording patients’ progress, modifying the care plan, and trying new treatments as needed.
  • Using exercises, stretching maneuvers, hands-on therapy, and equipment to ease patients’ pain, help them increase their mobility, prevent further pain or injury, and facilitate health and wellness.
  • Educating patients and their families about what to expect from the recovery process and how to cope with challenges.

Summary & Final Thoughts

According to APTA, a physical therapist is a movement expert who improves the quality of life through prescribed exercise, hands-on care, and patient education. Because therapists are so good at what they do, it is common for medical doctors and physicians to refer their patients to a physical therapist.

Thanks to the requirements, becoming a physical therapist can be pretty tasking, but the reward is usually worth it. These requirements include possessing a bachelor’s degree in a science field, completing a Doctor of Physical Therapy program, taking and passing the National Physical Therapy Examination, fulfilling state requirements for licensure, and an optional residency or fellowship.