Physical therapists may work in hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, transitional care units, schools, outpatient adult or pediatric clinics. Some physical therapists identify an area in which they want to specialize and seek certification in that area from the American Physical Therapy Association.
"All physical therapists are licensed as generalists, so their education prepares them to practice in any setting," explains Lisa Dutton, PT, PhD, associate professor of physical therapy at the College of St. Catherine.
One setting, lots of variety
One setting that offers several areas of practice is the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Minneapolis. Physical therapists at the Minneapolis VA may see patients who are there for orthopedic or vascular surgery, podiatry, prosthetics and orthotics, rehabilitation, transitional care and community living, which represents a discharge from acute care to a nursing home or extended care setting, according to Jeff Newman, PT, chief of physical therapy at the Minneapolis VA.
"We're a designated national polytrauma center and that designation grew out of the current conflicts in Afghanistan and in Iraq," adds Newman. "The polytrauma designation covers a spectrum of injuries, the first being traumatic brain injury, maybe lost eyesight, or amputation or broken bones or orthopedic or musculoskeletal problems."
Most of the VA's patients are elderly, according to Newman. But the polytrauma designation, which allows the medical center to accept patients from across the country, has added recent veterans to the mix.
The Minneapolis VA also accepts physical therapy students from Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota for clinical internships. "If you want to be on that continual learning curve, that's a daily thing here," Newman says. "It's a great learning environment."
Wellness an option, too
Outside the hospital setting, physical therapists have also begun to work in wellness, doing prevention work and screenings for young athletes and balance screenings for the elderly, according to Dutton.
"All the different places that you might practice and the roads your career might take - you don't necessarily spend it all in one setting," Dutton says. "I think people are attracted to that."
Most physical therapy education programs are now doctoral, according to Dutton. To be accepted at St. Catherine's three-year physical therapy program, college graduates must have taken chemistry, physics, biology, statistics, psychology, and an array of liberal arts. Mean starting salaries for St. Catherine graduates over the past three years have been around $55,000 a year, Dutton says. Salaries vary based on setting.
Specialization proves popular
Some physical therapists identify an area in which they want to specialize and seek certification in that area from the American Physical Therapy Association, Dutton says. Areas of specialization include orthopedics, neurology, sports, pediatrics, geriatrics, cardiovascular, pulmonary, and clinical electrophysiology, in which they use various modalities, such as electrical stimulation, in treatment.
"It's pretty popular," Dutton says of specialization. "It's another way that people demonstrate that they've increased their skills and knowledge in a particular area."