How to Get a Physical Therapy Certification

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Becoming any kind of health professional usually requires certification before you can practice. Physical therapists are one such role that is heavily regulated and ensures that anyone wanting to practice has this certification.

physical therapist

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The role of a physical therapist is a very important one as they help people heal, recover, and strengthen. Working this way with the human body means a lot of responsibility on their part and a duty of care to work safely but effectively, and so certification is crucial.

We explore further the various ways that one can gain certification for physical therapy so that once your studies are done, you’ll be able to practice in this field. Whether it’s a physical therapist or a physical therapist assistant, there are different steps to take to get started in your new career.

What Does A Physical Therapist Do?

The role of a physical therapist can vary from day to day, but their main concern is working with patients who might be limited in their movement. These patients may be suffering from limitations caused by disease, injury, illness, age, and more.

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Within their scope as a physical therapist, these medical professionals work through a range of exercises, intervention methods, and therapies to help them heal and regain their movement and function. Because of the serious nature of the work and the sensitivity of many of their patients means that a lot of training, experience, and certification is required for the role.

In addition to being certified, licensing is required in all US states and most other countries around the world have the same regulations in place. These measures work not just to protect their patients and clients, but also the therapists themselves.

The Different Study Levels for Physical Therapy

physical therapist working patient

The guidelines offered by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) state that any new students who wish to pursue this career path will have to enroll in a Doctor of Physical Therapy course. Previously, the role was possible with either a master’s or bachelor’s degree program in the field, however, this is no longer an option.

The previous degrees were accredited by APTA and there are some longer practicing physical therapists that might have even been grandfathered in for their license. However, these courses were phased out and by 2002 they were no longer accepted as the education equivalent to becoming a physical therapist.

By 2015, it was reported by the APTA that they had successfully phased out the other physical therapy courses or converted them and 96% of the programs being taught were the Doctor of Physical Therapy level which takes three years of full-time study to complete.

A physical therapy assistant is someone who works under the direct supervision and guidance of a licensed physical therapist. Their degree requirements are an associated degree that takes around two years, and it must come from an accredited PTA program. Graduates also have to pass the relevant examination for certification which can differ in some states.

Why Do I Need to be Certified?

physical therapist treating a patient

Anyone who visits a medical professional or health expert wants to know that they’re dealing with a professional. As health issues are extremely personal, as well as potentially inhibiting, disabling, or even life-threatening, there needs to be a serious level of trust that a health care provider knows what they are doing when treating you.

Physical therapists deal with very sensitive situations indeed, as many of their clients are trying to rehabilitate from injuries and disease. Therefore, certification is essential to ensure that patients get only the highest level of care from someone expertly trained and dedicated to helping them get better.

Certification is like peace of mind for your clients, but it is also helpful for the therapist. With this certification and regulation, you have a governing body that you can look to for assistance and protection, as well an ongoing development opportunity for furthering your career.

Accreditation with CAPTE

CAPTE Logo

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The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy (CAPTE) accredits all of the programs within the country that offer the Doctor of Physical Therapy, as well as any other courses including master’s and doctoral degrees. Their accreditation also covers the associate degrees for the physical therapist assistant courses which is require for the role.

At last count, there were over 400 physical therapy and physical therapy assistant programs offered in the country and accredited by CAPTE. Before enrolling in any type of study for this career you will need to verify their accreditation with this organization and ensure that it’s of the required standard for you to become qualified upon completion.

In addition to the required certification, there is also an advanced certification that one might achieve if they are looking to get into a specialty field. Generally speaking, those with a specialty in addition to their standard physical therapy accreditation will find a wider range of jobs, higher salary, more patient referrals, and less competition from others in their field.

There are currently seven different certifications you can achieve including sports, orthopedic, cardiovascular and pulmonary, and geriatric, just to name a few. At last count, just 10 percent of physical therapists who were currently practicing had a specialty certification. This further highlights how it could help your profile stand out and give you a greater sense of direction as to what you want to achieve with your career.

The National Physical Therapy Exam

Upon completion of your education program, you’ll then need to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam. This exam applies to both physical therapists and physical therapist assistants, with a different test for each certification level.

The physical therapist exam usually takes around five hours to complete and consists of 250 questions. To become a physical therapist assistant, your exam consists of 200 questions and should take roughly four hours to complete.

These exams are separated into categories which cover all aspects of what your job will entail. Some examples of categories you’ll find on both the PT and PTA exam include:

  • Interventions
  • Equipment and devices
  • Domains of practice
  • Physical therapy examination

There are 300 testing centers found across the country as well as Canada, and you can visit any of these to complete your exam. To pass, you’ll need a score of 600 or higher. Those who fail will be given an opportunity to re-sit the exam at a future date. Once the exam has been passed, you’ll then move onto the licensing stage which will depend on the state you wish to practice in.

Becoming Licensed Within Your State

Each state in the US has their own requirements for licensing, and this will be your next step to investigate once you have passed your exam. All states required that physical therapists and physical therapist assistants become licensed but most have the same basic guidelines for licensing application.

The most important requirement they have is that an applicant must have graduated from a program approved by the Commission on Accreditation within the American Physical Therapy Association. In addition to this, you will need to prove that you have passed your National Physical Therapy Exam.

Another important part of licensure is being able to pass the jurisprudence exam which refers specifically to your state, its laws, and practices. Some states that require this additional knowledge includes Nebraska, Ohio, California, and Arizona, and this is regulated by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.

The Importance of Certification

Whether you’re visiting your local doctor or seeing a physical therapist to help you recover, you want peace of mind that the professional you’re dealing with knows what they’re doing. Certification and licensing are important not just for the patients but also the therapist, and it helps to keep the entire industry regulated.

There are many steps to take in order to become a certified physical therapist or physical therapist assistant but for those committed to the job, it will be all worth it. Physical therapists have great job satisfaction, help others every day, and enjoy high salaries and good job opportunities in the medical field.

Physical therapists are important practitioners as they help those recovering from serious injuries or disease and so it’s a career with a lot of regulation. For those committed to this career, you’ll have to undertake education, examination, and certification to become registered, but the end results of a lifelong career helping others will make it all worthwhile.

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