Why Choosing a Career in Physical Therapy Isn't Settling
7 minute read
Everyone gets asked at some point what they want to be when they grow up.
This question often comes up around the time of high school graduation.
In high school I knew that I wanted to be some kind of health care professional, and I went into college planning to explore my options.
Health care was the only field I desired to go into, and I knew early into my college career that I wanted to seek a professional clinical degree when I finished my undergraduate degree. I just wasn't sure which route I wanted to go.
There are so many career options within health care, but I was between medical and physical therapy school. There were aspects of both that I liked, and I could see myself being satisfied in either one.
As I researched more, I found myself drawn to physical therapy. I liked the fact that the physical therapy profession offered the privilege of spending a lot of time with patients and getting to build a relationship with them. Not only that, but I liked the idea of being able to help people in pain feel better and get back to what they wanted to do. And finally, there was something appealing about going into an ever-growing and much-needed field, and I was excited at the thought of being a small part in making physical therapy a mainstay of health care delivery.
Despite my excitement to pursue a future career in physical therapy, people advised against it. My advisor and mentor in college encouraged me to pursue medical school instead of physical therapy because he thought that I would be limiting myself by choosing it.
As my professor, he thought of me as one of his brighter students and thought that being a physician required more potential and I had what it took, and by choosing to be a physical therapist (PT) I would be settling.
Now, I know that my advisor supported me in whatever decision I made but wanted to challenge me, and I am grateful that he saw that potential in me and was invested in my academic career. However, I didn't agree that pursuing physical therapy would limit my potential. There were unique things about it that I liked and I thought that it was a great fit for me.
I write this now as a third-year physical therapy student. I'll admit that I am completely satisfied about the decision I made and am excited to be part of this profession. And now I want to share some reasons why I think choosing a career in physical therapy over other health care professions is not settling, and why you should be confident in your pursuit of it.
Physical therapy and medicine are different
When it comes to patient care, I think traditionally what often comes to mind is a hierarchy with physicians at the top and all other health care providers as subordinate. If that was the past, the future of health care is team based. No longer can one provider meet all the health care needs of an individual; it takes multiple professionals with different areas of expertise to care for the health of a person.
Using physicians and PTs as an example, both are important in providing care to patients and offer people different services. Whereas physicians focus on the medical management of patients, PTs support a patient's movement goals. The way the physician-therapist relationship works is unique for every patient.
For instance, it may be that a physician manages the medications that a patient is taking while being treated by a PT for low back pain. Or, a PT supports the rehabilitation of a person after surgery and helps them return to the activities that are meaningful to them, while the surgeon monitors for postsurgical complications. Both providers offer distinct services, and along with the patient, they form a team to provide the most optimal care.
PTs are autonomous practitioners and can provide care without a referral. This means that we have the freedom to meet our patients' needs and the responsibility to provide them with appropriate care.
PTs also earn clinical doctorates and are the experts of the movement system. As a profession, we can independently evaluate, diagnose, and treat people for movement problems.
If you choose to pursue the physical therapy profession, you can be confident knowing that you will be an expert in your field and will have the responsibility to make decisions about the best care for your patients.
Physical therapy is valuable
There is a lot of misunderstanding of how PTs help patients. Ask different people what PTs do and you'll likely get a variety of answers. I think part of the confusion is because PTs actually have a variety of ways that they can help people.
One of the things that I love about physical therapy is that in one career alone I have the opportunity to help people manage pain, walk again, become more independent in activities, return to work or playing a sport after an injury, and improve the overall health and wellness of an individual. I think this also shows the value of what physical therapy has to offer. We have an opportunity to help people not only when they have an injury or illness, but also to lead more meaningful lives and help them to better do what they want to do.
Furthermore, as our nation addresses epidemics in chronic pain and opioid addiction, physical therapy offers a real solution. Certain treatments like medication or surgery are often seen by people as quick and easy solutions for pain, and while they are appropriate in some cases, they are not the answer for everyone.
In the clinical rotations I have had so far, I've had the opportunity to see how physical therapy can help people in pain. I have been able to help some people feel relief from pain in 1 visit, while it might take several visits for others before they start experiencing significant relief. But no matter how long it takes, PTs can truly help people who are in pain.
Physical therapy is fulfilling
The most rewarding experience for me is being able to see someone start to feel better and be able to go back to doing what they were limited in or unable to do before. It's even more challenging, but worthwhile, to be with someone who has experienced pain for years and has been limited in their ability to return to doing what they enjoy and feeling well.
My favorite interactions with patients are those light bulb moments when they realize that they can do something they thought they'd never be able to do again.
Every patient is also unique and what works for one person might not work for someone else, so there is plenty of room to be creative in physical therapy.
And since we get to spend so much time with our patients, we have an opportunity to go in-depth in providing them education about their health and how the body works, which patients don't always have the chance to get.
As future PTs and physical therapist assistants (PTAs), we have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our patients and our communities, and I know there is no other career I would rather pursue.
If you are a student of physical therapy, I hope that you are excited about the path that you are on. Be confident in your decision to pursue this field, and recognize the privilege it is to be in your position and the position given to you to help people. You're in a great profession with great people. Welcome to the profession!
Preston Tollers, SPT, is a student at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and serves as the Oklahoma Core Ambassador for the APTA Student Assembly. You can connect with him on Twitter @preston_spt.