Physical Therapy Assistants Boost Upward Mobility

Physical Therapy Assistants Boost (Upward) Mobility

Article Highlights

  • The aging Baby Boom population is a factor in the growing demand for physical therapy professionals.
  • War veterans requiring rehabilitation are also reshaping the professional landscape.

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Adapting to change is nothing new to the field of physical therapy. So it comes as no surprise that physical therapy professionals are turning some of society's steepest challenges, such as the rapidly aging population and swelling ranks of soldiers wounded in war, into promising opportunities. Not only are patients benefiting from new innovations in the field, but those entering the profession look forward to relatively rosy job prospects, even in a sagging economy.

Perhaps the most important factor is the aging of the Baby Boom generation, says Stephen Winkler, director of the Physical Therapist Assisting program at South University — Savannah. "We're soon going to see that huge group of the population moving into that older age where the demand for physical therapy goes up dramatically," he says. "Because of medicine and all of the things that we're able to do now, people are living longer and staying healthy for a longer period of time."

This demographic shift will mean significant job growth, agrees Nicole Stout, a physical therapist, researcher, and member of the board of directors for the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). Stout emphasizes the variety of settings in which the elderly seek physical therapy services. These include acute hospital, skilled nursing, and orthopedic facilities.

Another development reshaping the landscape of the profession is the recent uptick in veterans of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan requiring rehabilitation. Military conflicts have led to advances in rehabilitation that probably would not have occurred otherwise, says Stout.

Patients actually tell me that their doctor did not suggest physical therapy, but they suggested it to the doctor.

For example, Winkler points to amputees in his care who, with the benefit of new research and technology, are recovering mobility and function to a degree previously unimagined. "They run marathons. They compete. Some are actually able to return to the military with artificial limbs," he says.

New technology turns up in surprising places, Winkler says. He tells of visiting a clinic where the Wii Fit video game system was being used to treat two patients in their 80s. Playing the game, the women imitated skiing, leaning one way and another as they navigated a slalom course. "As they got better, they'd bump it up a level, and they'd go a little quicker," Winkler says. "These two ladies got into a competition — that got me so tickled. One said to the other, ‘I beat you by seven seconds. See if you can beat that.'"

Partly due to these developments, recent decades have seen a sharp rise in awareness of the necessity of physical therapy for full recovery from certain conditions and procedures. The discipline treats patients suffering from disabling conditions — fractures, head injuries, heart disease, and arthritis, for instance — and helps them maximize movement and function.

"More and more people have a knowledge of physical therapy now," says Winkler. "Patients actually tell me that their doctor did not suggest physical therapy, but they suggested it to the doctor. When you get to the point where patients are requesting a service, then you know that there is better knowledge of what you do out there."

"In some cases physical therapy interventions can help to prevent surgeries or may assist patients in avoiding medications," adds Stout. "We have to remember that there is a potential cost savings underlying all of this, even with greater utilization of physical therapy services."

Still, patients sometimes face barriers to treatment. Medicare, for example, currently limits reimbursement for physical therapy services to a maximum of $1,860 a year as of 2010, according to Justin Moore, APTA's vice president of government and payment advocacy. But APTA is recruiting members, patients, and the media to call for a repeal of this cap.

"APTA is also engaged in seeking policies to serve as an alternative to the arbitrary therapy cap with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and other policy leaders," says Moore. "These alternatives would ensure patient access to high-quality and cost-effective physical therapy."

All these factors add up to rapidly escalating demand for physical therapy services, which, in turn, should mean that these professionals enjoy high levels of job security. Unemployment among physical therapist assistants, for instance, is well below the national average of over 10%, according to APTA. And the outlook is improving, especially for physical therapist assistants.

Employment of physical therapist assistants and aides is predicted to grow 35% from 2008 through 2018, much faster than the average for jobs overall, adding some 37,900 new positions, according to the recently released U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2010-11 Occupational Outlook Handbook. However, BLS foresees tough competition for jobs among aides, who need not possess the two-year associate's degree demanded for physical therapist assistant certification in most states.

Those who obtain that associate's degree are best prepared for competitive labor markets, Winkler affirms. No wonder U.S. News & World Report recently dubbed physical therapist assistant "one of the 50 best careers of 2010."

Most physical therapist assistants do not go on to pursue the additional four years of higher education usually necessary to become a physical therapist. On the contrary, says Winkler, the physical therapist assistant degree is an end in itself, the gateway to a rewarding career in a high-demand field.

What does he tell students who are considering entering South University's Physical Therapy Assistant Program? "It's a hands-on profession — we hold onto our patients, we move them," says Winkler. "You've got to be very much a 'people person.'"

Written by freelance talent for South Source.

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