In the vast and rapidly growing field of healthcare, physical therapy stands out as an impactful and promising profession. With an aging population and increased focus on mobility, recovery from injury, avoiding disability, and maximizing function, physical therapists are in high demand. The field is projected to grow by 22% in the next decade.
Within physical therapy, there are many potential areas of specialization to consider. Specializing allows physical therapists to leverage exciting opportunities for career advancement, leadership roles, higher salary, and most importantly, providing the best possible care for patients.
Opportunities for Specialization
Those who want to become a physical therapist have a number of areas in which to specialize. Some common specialties include orthopedics, neurology, cardiopulmonary physical therapy, pediatrics, geriatrics, and sports medicine. Orthopedic physical therapy involves working with patients who have musculoskeletal injuries or conditions. Neurological physical therapy deals with patients who have had a stroke, spinal cord injury, or other neurological disorder. Cardiopulmonary physical therapists work with patients who have heart and lung conditions. Additional specialties include hand therapy, women’s health, and occupational health.
The opportunity to focus on a particular patient population or type of injury/dysfunction is a major advantage of specialization. A therapist can tailor their knowledge and skillset to the specific needs of the patients they serve most often. This allows them to provide more individualized, effective care.
Advanced Skills and Knowledge
Specializing allows a physical therapist to gain advanced expertise in their chosen area of practice. Post-graduate residencies, certifications, and continuing education provide therapists with cutting-edge skills and the latest evidence-based knowledge. For example, a sports medicine physical therapist may obtain specialized training in concussion management, ACL injury prevention, throwing injuries, running analysis, return to sport protocols, and more. They develop mastery over highly detailed evaluation and rehabilitation procedures for common athletic injuries. This depth of knowledge and technical skill is incredibly valuable for providing the best care and outcomes for patients. Advanced expertise improves patient satisfaction and enables therapists to take on more complex cases.
Career Advancement and Leadership
Specialization enhances career opportunities and can elevate a physical therapist into leadership roles. They may manage a therapy department, oversee residency or fellowship programs, teach at the university level, or speak at conferences. Specialists are viewed as experts and innovators within their field. Leadership provides opportunities to shape the future of the profession through advocacy, research, mentoring, program development, and policy-making. These roles lead to greater responsibility, fulfillment, and influence within the field of physical therapy.
Potential for Higher Salary
The advanced expertise and leadership capacity developed through specialization may translate into higher earning potential for physical therapists. Those with specialty certifications generally command a higher salary than generalist physical therapists. According to the APTA, sports-certified specialists garner over $71,000 annually compared to $66,000 for non-specialists. Additionally, leadership positions in hospitals, health organizations, and universities generally provide higher compensation. The investment in specialty training and expertise pays off financially.
While generalist physical therapists provide important rehabilitation services, specialization opens up many exciting opportunities. Advanced expertise in a chosen area allows physical therapists to provide excellent patient care. They gain the skills to treat complex conditions and take on leadership roles. Specializing may be the key to maximizing one’s career potential and salary as a physical therapist. With proper training and certification, physical therapists can become highly valued specialists within their field.