August 27, 2009
Physical therapy students face new hurdles -- but an excellent employment outlook
Special to NWjobs
It isn't easy to find a physical therapist on unemployment. The people who help patients regain mobility, coordination and strength after an injury or disease are in high demand -- and limited supply.
“The job outlook is very, very good for people in that field, for both physical therapists and physical therapist assistants,” says Carrie Utic, human resources manager for Apple Physical Therapy, an outpatient physical therapy company with 23 clinics in the Puget Sound area.
The level of education required to become a physical therapist is part of the reason for a shortage. Just a decade ago, a bachelor’s degree and licensing were enough for a physical therapist to get started.
In 1999, the University of Washington and other universities began offering only a master’s degree program for physical therapy. By 2003, it became a doctoral degree. “All of the programs in the Pacific Northwest are (now) at the doctoral level,” says Laura Robinson, program manager for the physical therapy curriculum at the University of Washington.
Those three years of education beyond a bachelor’s degree are to help the profession keep pace with practice laws. “It is primarily to address the independent practice laws that we have in this state,” Robinson says. “More and more, physical therapists are a gateway into the system. By that I mean that a physical therapist can evaluate and treat someone that self-refers or someone that just walks into their clinic without a doctor’s referral. So the knowledge base that a physical therapist needs these days has expanded considerably.”
While education requirements and expenses have gone up, compensation hasn’t kept as good a pace. According to the Washington State Employment Security Department, the mean wage for a physical therapist last August was $69,891.
“It’s no longer as enticing as it used to be. It’s actually a little harder to get people as interested in being physical therapists because of the financial realities,” says Claude Ciancio, president and chief operating officer of Apple Physical Therapy.
For those who do make it beyond school, employers snap them up quickly. “A lot of PT students have jobs before they leave school,” says Garrett Knappe, supervisor of outpatient rehabilitation at Overlake Hospital Medical Center. He says signing bonuses and other perks are some of the ways that employers attract physical therapists.
Once on the job, physical therapists can expect one-on-one interaction with patients. “That’s what got me into it,” says Knappe. “I thought I wanted to go into research at first coming out of college, but then I was just by myself. I was going crazy. I need that contact. It’s a very rewarding profession.”
Besides being patient, knowledgeable and motivating, physical therapists should also be physical, Knappe says. “It’s a very active profession. You must be very active and a good role model for your patients,” he says. “It’s hard for people to buy into what you’re saying if you’re not fit yourself.”
Physical therapists can help with:
Urinary and fecal incontinence biofeedback
Neurological rehabilitation for stroke, amputation or multiple sclerosis
Joint and soft-tissue trauma
Back and neck pain
Knee and hip replacements
Sports injury rehabilitation
Ciancio says compassion is a critical quality for physical therapists. “They have to really care about getting people well. It’s what will drive them to constantly solve problems on behalf of the patient,” he says. “A good therapist never provides cookie-cutter programs or solutions. That drive to truly help people leads to more creative, patient-specific and, therefore, effective clinical solutions.”
One of the more creative physical therapy sites is at Northwest Hospital and Medical Center, which has a 7,684-square-foot rehab area called Easy Street Environments. Inpatients and outpatients can practice how to shop, dine, get in and out of a car, garden and do laundry in this life-size replica of a city street, complete with curbs, a grocery store, movie theater, vehicles, homes with beds and kitchens -- and a restaurant dining area that was originally at Seattle’s Canlis Restaurant.
“It’s a way for people both to facilitate the rehab process and also to directly connect it with the functional outcome,” says Pete Rigby, director of services in rehabilitation at Northwest. “To have the staff be able to do the therapy in an environment like that really augments what we can do.”
Continuing education also helps keep the creative juices flowing for physical therapists, and Apple has been a leader in providing on-site courses for its employees. “We have courses that we’ve developed in-house that are in different areas such as evaluation skills, manual therapy, post-surgical rehabilitation (and) exercise prescription,” says Utic.
“By offering those classes, I think it’s a big draw, especially for new grads.” The courses help Apple retain its 100 or so physical therapists, with a turnover rate of about 2.5 percent a year. “We really try hard to make sure our employees stay happy,” says Utic.
Flexibility for family time also adds to job satisfaction. “We started a flexible benefit program that allows employees to put aside tax-free money to pay for child care expenses, and we have very flexible scheduling for working moms. That’s something we’ve tried very hard to do,” Ciancio says. “It was an easy decision to become creative with scheduling for working moms because it helped us retain some of the best therapists around.”
The physical therapists at Apple and other medical sites get a helping hand in other ways from physical therapy assistants. Assistants help with patients’ treatment under the direction of a physical therapist.
“You get to do a lot that a physical therapist does, but of course you don’t have that deeper skill level,” says Utic. “You can’t do the evaluations, for example. They’re not in charge of the patient, so they’re working under the supervision of the physical therapist who is coming up with a treatment plan.”
An associate’s degree and licensing are required to become a physical therapy assistant in Washington. Programs can be found at community colleges including Green River Community College. In 2008, Pima Medical Institute in Seattle added a physical therapy assistant degree to its offerings based on input from area employers about increased need for the professionals.
Knappe says the demand for physical therapy assistants has increased, in part, because of tighter Medicare rules and reduced reimbursement. Last August, the mean wage for an assistant was $45,656 a year, according to the Washington State Employment Security Department.
Figures from 2006, the most recent data available, show an estimated 1,623 physical therapists and 341 physical therapy assistants in Washington, so there is room for growth for both professions -- 2.8 percent and 3.3 percent, respectively, through 2009.
The University of Washington, which accepts about 30 students each year for its physical therapy program, has expansion in mind. Robinson says, “There is quite a shortage of therapists throughout the United States, and we do have plans within the next five years to increase our admitted class level to 40 to 45 students.”
This article was originally published in August 2008.
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