Physical Therapist Job Descriptions: What You Need to Know

Jun 3, 2019
14 min read
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What do physical therapists do? What is included in a PT's job description? Here's everything you need to know about the role of a physical therapist.

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Physical therapy has developed over time to become a mainstream medical profession that treats a large percentage of our population over every stage of the human lifespan. So why then is one of the most frequently searched terms related to PT “physical therapist job description?"

We have the opportunity to educate people who are interested in what we do, whether they are a fellow PT looking to write a job description, a physical therapist looking for a position, a patient hoping to find out more about new physician, or a pre-PT looking to learn about their future career.

First things first . . . what does a PT do?

Physical therapists are medical professionals who rehabilitate patients and optimize function through hands-on intervention and exercise. The American Physical Therapy Association published the revised “Guide to Physical Therapist Practice” in 2003. The guide outlines the latest definition of what is considered the scope of practice of a physical therapist. The APTA defines the overarching roles of any physical therapist as:

  • Diagnosing and managing movement dysfunction and enhancing physical and functional capabilities
  • Restoring, maintaining, and promoting not only optimal physical function but optimal wellness, fitness, and quality of life as it relates to movement and health
  • Preventing the onset, symptoms, and progression of impairments, functional limitations, and disabilities that may result from diseases, disorders, conditions, or injuries (APTA, 2003)

Each state in the US does have its own practice act for licensure, and there is some variability state to state of what physical therapists can do based on location. The APTA catalogs each practice act by state on their website.

In the United States, physical therapy has been an industry which thrived due to necessity. At different points in American history, physical therapists have been at the forefront of solving unique challenges presented by events of different eras.

The origins of our profession can be traced to handling both the polio epidemic of the late 1800s-early 1900s and the changing types of war injuries incurred over the course of the 20th century. From World War I and II to modern conflicts, innovation in rehabilitation techniques to care for these populations has been driven by physical therapists (Moffat, 2003).

“According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is projected growth for physical therapy of 28% between 2016-2026.”

Modern physical therapy has taken strides to shift to autonomous, primary care, while also staying true to the classic treatment models of prior eras. There is consistent growth shown in both the number of specialties and settings of physical therapy, which will be described in detail below. Along with the increase in options for physical therapist settings, there has been a growth in the demand for services. This can be correlated with a number of factors including research and evidence-based practice, an increasing number of avenues for patient education including social media and telehealth, and a generally aging population.

Demand for PTs continues to grow, and properly managing a practice is more important than ever. Check out our tips for better Understanding the Economics of a Physical Therapy Practice!

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there is projected 28% growth for physical therapy between 2016-2026. This is a much faster rate than the overall average of 7%, which is great news! But what is the standard for physical therapy practice? How should a formal physical therapy job description be structured? What do you include? The answer is multifactorial and includes a definition of a PT’s scope of practice, the core values that make a strong practitioner, and the operational skill set that is required for employment.

Are you ready to hire a new PT for your practice? Use the job description template at the end of this article to get your search started!

What are the qualities of a good physical therapist?

Regardless of setting, specialty, or location, there are seven core values that have been identified by the APTA for best practice in the field of physical therapy (APTA, 2009). These are the characteristics that aspiring physical therapists should strive to embody.

Accountability

Acceptance of the responsibility for the diverse roles, obligations, and actions of the physical therapist including self-regulation and other behaviors that positively influence patient/client outcomes, the profession, and the health needs of society.

Altruism

Primary regard for, or devotion to, the interest of patients/clients, thus assuming the fiduciary responsibility of placing the needs of the patient/client ahead of the physical therapist’s self-interest.

Compassion & Caring

Concern, empathy, and consideration for the needs and values of others.

Excellence

Physical therapy practice that consistently uses current knowledge and theory while understanding personal limits, integrates judgment and the patient/client perspective, embraces advancement, challenges mediocrity, and works toward the development of new knowledge.

Integrity

Adherence to high ethical principles or professional standards.

Professional Duty

Commitment to meeting one’s obligations to provide effective physical therapy services to patients/clients, to serve the profession, and to positively influence the health of society.

Social Responsibility

Promotion of mutual trust between the profession and the larger public that necessitates responding to societal needs for health and wellness.

What schooling is required to be a physical therapist?

Physical therapist education is somewhat unique in that the educational requirements of physical therapists have changed substantially in recent decades. The designation “PT” only denotes licensure as a physical therapist. Education level, however, is reflected in the degree obtained and comes after the letters “PT.” For example, my name written with my title is “Caitlin Mancuso PT, DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy).”

All physical therapy programs currently offer a Doctorate in Physical Therapy as an entry-level professional degree. However, if a therapist obtained an entry-level bachelor’s or master’s degree prior to the advent of the DPT, they may still maintain licensure by meeting his or her state’s requirements. A transitional DPT, or t-DPT is offered by some schools in order for those PTs to further their education to doctoral level.

Once entry-level training is completed, the therapist graduates with baseline competence to practice in any setting. There are now options for residencies, fellowships, and board-certified specialties to further delve into niche practices.

What are some popular physical therapy specialties?

Board certification is offered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties in nine areas of physical therapy practice. Testing is offered once per year and applications must be approved by the board prior to testing. Each specialty practice spans a broad range, but some of the more common categories of treatments are listed.

Orthopedic PT focuses on managing musculoskeletal injuries, including but not limited to:

  • Pre-Operative Rehabilitation
  • Post-Operative Rehabilitation
  • Management of overuse/strain/sprain Injuries
  • Treatment and rehabilitation of athletic injury
  • Treatment and rehabilitation of workman’s compensation injury
  • Treatment and rehabilitation of motor vehicle accident injury
  • Balance & Gait Training

Sports PT is similar to orthopedics but works more exclusively with athletes.

  • On-site injury management at athletic events
  • Emergency management of athletes
  • Return to sport testing
  • Treatment and rehabilitation of athletic injury
  • Sports performance training and periodization
  • Functional Movement Screening
  • Athletic injury prevention

Neurology PT refers to the management of neurological conditions. A few examples are:

  • Stroke rehabilitation
  • Spinal Cord injury rehabilitation
  • Management of degenerative conditions such as:
    • Parkinson’s
    • Multiple Sclerosis
    • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Concussion management
  • Vestibular rehabilitation

Pediatric PT focuses on the management of conditions in children aged 0-21 years old. There is a heavy emphasis placed on plans for education and maximizing independent living.

  • Early Intervention - treatment specific to children 0-3 years old
  • Writing individualized education plans
  • Management of common pediatric conditions
    • Cerebral Palsy
    • Autism Spectrum
    • Muscular Dystrophy
  • Adaptive equipment fitting and training
  • Family education, home evaluations

Cardiology and Pulmonary PT focuses on cardiopulmonary treatment techniques. Exercise programs are prescribed but with a focus on parameters and outcomes specific to heart and lung conditions. Some examples include:

  • Cardiac rehabilitation post-myocardial infarction
  • Monitoring vitals as part of an exercise plan
  • Lifestyle modification education
  • Airway clearance techniques for pulmonary conditions
  • Percussion and vibration techniques
  • Postural drainage

Geriatric PT focuses on the needs of the elderly population, specifically when it comes to exercise and wellness.

  • Management of injuries in the elderly
  • Post-op management of elderly patients especially joint replacement
  • Fall Prevention
  • Assistive Device Training
  • Home evaluation
  • Balance training
  • Cognitive evaluation
  • Wellness and patient education

Women’s Health PT is the management of conditions of the pelvic floor of both men and women.

  • Treating incontinence
  • Pre-partum physical therapy
  • Post-partum physical therapy
  • Pelvic Floor biofeedback training
  • Management of pain with intimacy

Oncology PT is involved in the management of patients that are undergoing or that have completed cancer treatment. There is an emphasis on the challenges that accompany fatigue, neuropathy, and/or other chronic conditions that can occur with cancer treatment and lifelong management of symptoms.

Clinical Electrophysiology specialists can become certified to perform tests and measures such as electromyography and nerve conduction studies, and/or to use electrotherapy in the treatment of skin conditions such as wounds or ulcers.

What are common settings to practice physical therapy in?

Inpatient Physical Therapist Job Description

  • Inpatient care involves caring for hospital or facility residents that stay overnight, in-house for their rehabilitation. A typical stay can last anywhere from a couple of days to a few weeks. The primary goal of inpatient PT is to help patients be discharged and equip them to return to their homes.
  • When hiring an Inpatient physical therapist, be sure to look out for candidates who are physically up for the work. Working in inpatient PT is physically demanding, but it also gives PTs the chance to see the direct benefits of their care every day.

Outpatient Physical Therapist Job Description

  • Outpatient facilities treat patients that have the ability to travel to a PT clinic and live at home. Outpatient facilities vary between populations and can see orthopedic, neurological, sports, geriatric, or pediatric condition based on staffing. The primary goal of PTs in this setting is to help patients return to the same level of function they had prior to their injury.
  • The qualities needed for an outpatient PT can also vary widely from location to location. PTs working in hospitals may need to work more flexibly with other members of the care team or or be comfortable working at odd hours. Private clinics may have more of a focus on a specific population and will have their own unique treatment approaches and methodologies.

Skilled Nursing Facility Physical Therapist Job Description

  • SNFs are the next step down from inpatient facilities for patients that need further rehabilitation prior to being discharged safely to their home. Patients receive multi-disciplinary care including PT, OT, and speech for multiple hours a day to achieve their goals and eventually be discharged.
  • The perfect PTs for SNF work will be passionate team players who work well across disciplines as they’ll frequently collaborate with other healthcare professionals.

School Physical Therapist Job Description

  • School-based therapy takes place during the school day. The goal is for the student is to progress through his or her individual education plan for the school year and function well in the classroom.
  • A major plus for any candidates in this setting is experience working with children. School-based PTs may work away from teams of other healthcare professionals, so it’s essential that the right candidate is excited about regularly working with children.

Travel Physical Therapist Job Description

  • Travel contracts are short term (usually around three months, but they can be longer) and are set in the geographical location of choice based on the contracts that are available. PTs that work for travel-based companies must be flexible and able to regularly move around the country.
  • Ideal travel therapists are PTs who are excited about moving around. They’re ready and able to move about the country regularly and are always looking for the chance to try something new.

Interested in Travel PT? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Travel Physical Therapy!

Home Health Physical Therapist Job Description

  • Home health PTs perform physical therapy services in the patient’s home. The PT usually drives themselves from patient case to patient case. The volume of patients seen per week is typically lower than it is other settings, but more daily travel is involved moving from location to location.
  • Similar to Travel PTs, those working in home health must be willing and able to move around. Though travel is much less intensive in home health, PTs must be comfortable in their cars, moving from location to location.
  • Another point to keep in mind is that PTs in home health settings will be in their patients’ homes! This may seem obvious, but making sure that prospective candidates are alright with the possibility of pets and various other distractions is important.

What is the average salary of a physical therapist?

Now, the part you’ve wanted to know all along . . . how much do PTs make, anyway? WebPT compiled a comprehensive salary guide in 2017. There is a wide range of salaries based on setting and location. The mean annual wage nationally came out to $87,220. Here are some snippets of the rest of the data (WebPT, 2017):

Five Highest Paying States for Physical Therapists

  1. Nevada - $120,820
  2. New Jersey - $96,890
  3. California - $95,350
  4. Texas - $95,240
  5. Alaska - $93,060

Five Highest Paying Settings for Physical Therapists

  1. Home Health - $98,230
  2. School - $95,110
  3. Skilled Nursing Facility - $92,670
  4. Assisted Living Facility - $91,760
  5. Outpatient - $89,030

As you can see, there is a spectrum of what to expect for salary, even in the top five results of these two categories. However, researching the specialty and region of choice beforehand can give a clear picture of what to expect when interviewing, and what to offer candidates when hiring.

Bringing it all together . . .

It’s an exciting time to be in this field! The industry that was born because people needed help is now helping people with a growing number of services and is able to provide a wider reach and offer direct access to patients. Anyone with a passion for rehabilitation and core values at heart can find a home in one of the various branches of physical therapy.

Growing demand means the jobs are out there. Having a strong sense of the job requirements for PTs in different settings, including core values, daily skills, and operational duties means you can work to make sure your practice stands out among the rest. Don’t forget to check out our templates below to start building the job description for your new physical therapist!

Works Cited

  1. APTA. (2009, 12 14). APTA Core Values. Retrieved 5 11, 2019, from APTA.org: http://www.apta.org/uploadedFiles/APTAorg/About_Us/Policies/BoD/Judicial/ProfessionalisminPT.pdf
  2. APTA. (2003). Guide to Physical Therapist Practice.Alexandria, VA: The American Physical Therapy Association.
  3. APTA. (2018, 4 20). Physical Therapist Education Overview. Retrieved 5 11, 2019, from The American Physical Therapy Association: https://www.apta.org/For_Prospective_Students/PT_Education/Physical_Therapist_(PT)_Education_Overview.aspx
  4. Moffat, M. (2003). The History of Physical Therapy Practice in the United States. Journal of Physical Therapy Education, 17(3), 15-25.
  5. WebPT. (2017, 4 26). The PT Salary Guide.Retrieved 5 11, 2019, from WebPT: WebPT.com
About Caitlin Mancuso

Dr. Caitlin Mancuso is a 2014 graduate of the Rutgers University physical therapy program. Prior to receiving her DPT, she completed an undergraduate degree in Exercise Science at The University of Scranton. Currently, she works in outpatient orthopedics and treats a wide variety of populations.

Caitlin has furthered her education during the new graduate years to include Board Certification in Orthopedics, Manual Therapist Certification, Vestibular Certification, and Strength and Conditioning Certification.

Aside from physical therapy, Caitlin was a member of both the women's soccer and rugby teams during college. She continues to participate in recreational soccer and club rugby in her home state of New Jersey.

Her full LinkedIn profile can be found here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/caitlinmancusodpt/