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Physical Therapy Professions: Overview of the Required Qualifications

The field of physical therapy has three main levels of expertise: physical therapist, physical therapist assistant and physical therapist aide. Each practice entails different training and licensing requirements. Read on to learn more about these professions.

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Physical Therapists

A physical therapist (PT) diagnoses and treats patients with medical problems and health-related conditions that limit their mobility and functionality. PTs also help prevent loss of mobility by promoting wellness and fitness programs that lead to healthy and active lifestyles. Physical therapists may find employment with medical facilities, schools, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and home health care agencies.

Required Qualifications

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physical therapists typically need post-baccalaureate degrees from accredited physical therapy programs (www.bls.gov). Undergraduate degrees in biology, anatomy, physiology, biomechanics or related fields provide students with strong foundations for graduate programs in physical therapy. Master's and doctoral degree programs in physical therapy include classes like neuroscience, motor control, kinesiology and exercise physiology, as well as clinical practicums at health care facilities.

Each state requires practicing physical therapists to obtain licensure, although the requirements vary. According to the BLS, applicants are usually required to have graduated from an accredited physical therapy program and pass the National Physical Therapy Examination. Some states require applicants to take other exams before granting licensure and may require licensed PTs to take continuing education courses to keep their licenses valid.

Job Outlook

The BLS projected a favorable employment outlook for physical therapists through the 2010-2020 decade. A much faster than average job growth of 39% was attributed to the need for rehabilitative services among patients recovering from surgery or trauma and an aging baby boomer population. In 2012, physical therapists earned a median salary of $79,860.

Physical Therapist Assistants

Physical therapist assistants work alongside PTs, providing support in efforts to restore patients' mobility. These professionals take directions from physical therapists and help administer treatment plans. Their duties may include prepping patients for exams and helping patients exercise as well as teaching patients how to use braces, wraps, crutches and other support tools. Physical therapy assistants may also perform therapeutic procedures, like massage or electrical stimulation.

Required Qualifications

The BLS states that physical therapist assistants in most states are required to have at least associate's degrees from accredited physical therapist assistant programs. Students typically participate in clinical education in addition to their in-class coursework. Classes may include anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, neuroscience and ethics. Physical therapist assistants must also comply with their states' licensing, registration or certification requirements, which can entail passing the National Physical Therapy Exam. State-administered exams and continuing education courses are required in some states.

Job Outlook

Physical therapist assistants could see an even faster job growth of 46% between 2010 and 2020. In addition to the need for services among older adults and trauma victims, the cost-effectiveness of hiring assistants to implement physical therapists' treatment plans was expected to create more than 30,000 new positions. According to the BLS, these assistants earned a median salary of $52,160 in 2012.

Physical Therapy Aides

Physical therapist aides help ensure that therapy sessions go smoothly. They bring patients to the PT, retrieve equipment for patients, organize supplies and sometimes manage patient paperwork. These professionals work under the guidance of physical therapists or physical therapist assistants.

Required Qualifications

The BLS states that physical therapist aides usually receive on-the-job training and are not required to obtain a license; however, employers may require physical therapist aides to have a high school diploma or equivalent. Some high school electives can provide valuable knowledge to physical therapy aides, like classes in anatomy, physiology, nursing and health education.

Job Outlook

The BLS also reported a favorable employment outlook for physical therapy aides. These healthcare professionals could see a 43% growth in employment opportunities from 2010-2020, though strong competition was expected for these jobs due to the large number of qualified applicants. In 2012, physical therapy aides earned a median salary of $23,880.

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