Physical Therapist Work Environments

Interested in a career in physical therapy? Through hands-on treatment, physical therapists help patients recover from injury and live to their fullest potential. Learn what physical therapists do, where they work, what level of education they need to practice, and what career paths are available to them.

Work Environment

Physical therapists typically work in private offices and clinics, hospitals, patients’ homes, and nursing homes. They spend much of their time on their feet, actively working with patients.

Physical Therapist: What Do They Do And Their Work Environment

How to become a physical therapist

You will require an in-depth education and skill set to succeed in this career. These are the steps to follow:

1. Earn a bachelors degree

You should select a program of study that focuses on human anatomy and physiology or the biological sciences. You will need a doctoral degree to become a PT, so you should check with the school to see if they have any prerequisites for the bachelors degree.

2. Complete a doctoral degree

You must complete a three year Doctor of Physical Therapy degree to work in this role. Choose a program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. Your coursework will cover the practical application of physical therapy, pharmacotherapy and complex conditions.

3. Gain licensure

All states require licensure before you can find employment. You will need to sit for and pass the multiple-choice National Physical Therapy Examination administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. You may also need to pass a law exam and a criminal background check. You will need to renew your license regularly and comply with continuing education credits.

4. Complete an optional residency

A clinical residency program offers additional training and allows you to gain experience in a specialization. They are usually one year in length and are not mandatory, but they are attractive to potential employers.

5. Become certified

You can choose to become a board-certified specialist in eight different clinical areas once you have completed 2,000 hours of clinical work on a residency program and passed an exam.

What does a physical therapist do?

Physical therapists, also called PTs, are licensed healthcare professionals who specialize in the movement of the human body. They offer physical therapy to patients who are suffering from restricted movement due to injuries or illnesses to restore or improve the range of motion. If you are referred to a physical therapist, they will help to educate you on how best to manage your condition or injury so you have less pain, a greater ability to move and a reduced likelihood of problems later on.

A PT can design a program of fitness so you can have a healthier and active lifestyle. They may offer hands-on treatments like massages and other techniques to help their patients or teach them exercises to do themselves.

Physical therapist work environments

You may think of a hospital setting when you think of a career in physical therapy, but there is a range of places where you can find employment. Here are some of the options:

Outpatient physical therapy clinics

When a patient does not stay overnight and instead visits the clinic for a short time, they are an outpatient. There are often outpatient physical therapy clinics within a hospital or other facility. Outpatients do not normally need extremely intense therapy and can live at home fairly independently. Outpatient clinics can be general physiotherapy clinics or offer specializations, such as pediatrics or geriatrics. Outpatient clinics can be privately owned by the lead physiotherapist or part of a larger organization.

Patients homes

Physical therapists who visit patients in their own homes are called home health physical therapists. These patients may have been discharged from the hospital following an illness or injury, and they require help at home to assist them with their independence. After a prolonged stay in the hospital, some patients need help to regain normal function due to loss of muscle tone.

PTs provide exercises to restore the bodily condition and provide equipment for the home to make it accessible to wheelchairs or walkers. They may also advise the patient and family on how to make their homes as safe as possible by removing potential hazards. Working in this setting is ideal for PTs who enjoy the freedom of working on their own schedule and seeing a variety of places in their working day.

The military

The work you do on a daily basis is similar for military members and civilians. You may find it particularly rewarding knowing you are helping a veteran who served the country. There are a large number of veteran health facilities to work in, in a variety of appealing settings. You may also want to work in active service, which can be a high-energy and challenging role.

The physical therapists who choose to work in the U.S. military are called physical medicine apprentices in the U.S. Air Force, physical therapy specialists in the U.S. Army and physical therapy technicians in the U.S. Navy.

Prisons

This is a role for a physical therapist who is strong and enjoys a challenge. Not all prisons have a resident PT, so you may travel to several prisons and be in charge of the rehabilitation health of hundreds of prisoners. As part of this role, you may also be offering your services to the guards and staff of the prisons. Prisons tend to offer a higher salary than in other settings.

Veterinarian clinics

If you love animals, then finding employment as an animal physical therapist could be the ideal career choice. As with PT for humans, you can work in a specialized clinic, as part of a veterinary clinic or you could travel to patients homes to help them with their rehabilitation.

Animal physical therapy is most commonly used on household pets or animal athletes like racehorses. You may need to undertake additional studies to become familiar with animal anatomy and physiology, as it differs from that of humans. You may be able to find an internship with an established animal PT to gain relevant experience.

Schools

You may be acting in an advisory capacity to help schools make sure their students are as fit and healthy as possible. Factors like seats and desks can affect student performance if they are not comfortable and suitable for the age ranges that are using them. Boarding schools also have beds to consider. You may be recommending programs of fitness and well-being and helping students with injuries if they occur in the school setting.

Sports teams

If you are a keen sportsperson, you may enjoy the role of a PT within a sports team. You will need to travel with the team as they play matches and tend to injuries as they occur. You may also need to help the patient in their own home with their rehabilitation. Generally, the upper levels of sports have their own PT who offers massages and other therapies to maintain optimal, athletic health in addition to other PT responsibilities.

Nursing homes

Also called skilled nursing facilities, in these settings, the patients tend to be long-term residents who are elderly or have a chronic illness or condition. Due to the aging population, there is an increase in nursing homes and therefore PT positions in these facilities.

You may be treating individuals with conditions like arthritis, which is a progressive problem, and your aim is to retain as much movement as possible and keep the pain level as low as possible. You may also be leading classes of group physical therapy with chair yoga or gentle walking exercises.

You could be treating younger patients who have been admitted to these facilities with spinal or brain conditions, once they have left the hospital and require rehabilitation before they are able to live independently.

Sports facilities and gyms

If you enjoy fitness and working out, finding employment as a PT in a fitness setting could be rewarding. As a physical therapist, you will help to promote health and wellness. Traditional gyms and sports facilities may employ physical therapists to help their clients with sports-related injuries. The PT may offer support to clients who are not injured to help reduce the chance of injuries from occurring.

There is a growing trend in pre-rehabilitation, which aims to make sure that a client who is due to have surgery is as strong as possible before it takes place. This means that the rehabilitation afterward will be shorter and more effective.

If a traditional gym is not appealing, perhaps working in a specialized gym might be. You can find neuro gyms that aim to help people with neurological conditions or gyms that cater to children with autism. Look to see if there are specialized gyms in your area.

FAQ

What kind of working environment could you expect with being a rehabilitation therapist?

In general, specialized outpatient practice is the work environment most preferred by rehabilitation therapists, according to Trends in Rehabilitation Services 2012, a national report on therapist attitudes and workforce trends by Jackson Healthcare, a healthcare staffing company.

What is a typical day for a physical therapist?

Physical therapist work hours generally range from 8 am to 5 pm, although some PTs may start earlier or work later in the evening to accommodate the busy schedules of patients. However, PTs that work in hospitals or nursing homes may need to work hours on the weekends or on holidays to provide continuous patient care.

What are the typical work responsibilities of physical therapists?

Physical Therapist Responsibilities
  • Consulting with patients to learn about their physical condition.
  • Assessing and interpreting patient evaluations and test results.
  • Developing treatment plans using a variety of treatment techniques.
  • Creating personalized fitness-oriented health care programs for patients.

Is physical therapy job stressful?

Background: Job stress has been associated with poor outcomes. In focus groups and small-sample surveys, physical therapists have reported high levels of job stress. Studies of job stress in physical therapy with larger samples are needed.

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