APTA Urges for Workforce Issues in Reform

Developing and Maintaining an Adequate Workforce Necessary to Meeting Patients' Needs   

ALEXANDRIA, VA, May 6, 2009 -- As the nation's lawmakers debate health care reform, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is urging that policies addressing workforce issues be included in reform legislation to ensure that the growing and diverse needs of health care consumers will be met by a high-quality health professional workforce. 

"Meeting workforce challenges to improve access for all patient populations will be a critical part of health care reform," said APTA President R. Scott Ward, PT, PhD. "Ensuring an adequate supply of physical therapists to meet the rehabilitation needs of people with disabilities, patients with chronic conditions, and seniors will require investment by a federal program charged with maintaining an adequate and qualified health care workforce." 

During a recent hearing held by the Senate Committee on Finance on workforce issues in health care, APTA outlined the vast health care needs of patients and how the demand for physical therapist services is outpacing the number of physical therapists in the workforce. APTA expressed the critical need for reform legislation to include: funding for clinical education sites for PTs, physical therapy fellowships, and faculty development; grants to physical therapy programs to expand capacity; and expanding scholarship/loan repayment programs to include PTs.         

The physical therapy profession is experiencing several workforce challenges related to a number of occurrences within the health care environment. First, the nation is experiencing an increased prevalence of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and obesity. An estimated 21 million Americans had diabetes in 2005, and the number of new cases is expected to increase by 54 percent.1 The most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination reported that 34.3 percent of US adults are obese and 5.9 percent are extremely obese.2 Physical therapists are trained to provide care that can assist with preventing and managing diabetes to help patients maintain the highest degree of function possible. They also develop programs for patients who are obese that can balance the progression of exercise with the need for joint protection and safety. 

Additionally, as many as 40 to 50 million Americans report having a disability,3 according to the Institute of Medicine. This estimate is expected to increase as the baby boomer generation enters late life when the risk of disability is at its highest. People with disabilities also benefit from individualized treatment plans developed by physical therapists that promote their ability to move, reduce pain, and restore function.              

Physical therapist staffing is a concern in various health care settings, including those that provide services for patients in the Indian Health Service, the nation's veterans, and aging adults. Any existent vacancy rate for physical therapists in the Indian Health Service (IHS) is especially significant as patients who receive care in the IHS have a high rate of diabetes. It is estimated that two in five American Indian/Alaska Native children are overweight, compared with one in five children in the general population.4 And, the more than 31,000 servicemen and women who have returned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with injuries requiring rehabilitation create not only a national need for physical therapists in the Department of Veterans Affairs, but also a need at the community level as veterans return to their homes, families, and work. Skilled nursing facilities, which have a vacancy rate for full-time physical therapists of 18.6 percent and the highest turnover rate for physical therapist positions, are expected to see an increase in demand for physical therapy services as the population ages.     

In addition to the cited demand for physical therapy services, the distribution of the workforce also presents challenges. Similar to other health care professions, the distribution of physical therapists is disproportionate in underserved communities, both rural and urban, making access to rehabilitation services especially difficult for potential patients in these areas.       

Physical therapists are highly-educated, licensed health care professionals who can help patients reduce pain and improve or restore mobility – in many cases without expensive surgery or the side effects of prescription medications. APTA represents more than 72,000 physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, and students of physical therapy nationwide. Its purpose is to improve the health and quality of life of individuals through the advancement of physical therapist practice, education, and research. In most states, patients can make an appointment directly with a physical therapist, without a physician referral. Learn more about conditions physical therapists can treat and find a physical therapist in your area at www.moveforwardpt.com.


1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Division of Health Interview Statistics, data from the national Health Interview Survey 2005. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/estimates05.htm#prev. Accessed April 22, 2009.

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Prevalence of overweight, obesity and extreme obesity among adults: United States, trends 1976-80 through 2005-2006. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/pubs/pubd/hestats/overweight/overweight_adult.pdf. Accessed April 22, 2009.

3.  Institute of Medicine, The Future of Disability in America, April 24, 2007. 

4. US Department of Health and Human Services, Indian Health Services. Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Program: Obesity Available at http://www.ihs.gov/NonMedicalPrograms/HPDP/index.cfm?module=focus&option=obesity&newquery=1. Accessed April 22, 2009.