Complete Guide to Online Physical Therapy Programs

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Students seeking to become either a physical therapist or a physical therapy assistant will find many online physical therapy programs available to them. Physical therapists (PTs) work with patients who are suffering from injuries, illnesses, or chronic issues in order to improve their physical movement and alleviate any pain during the rehabilitation process. They put together training regimens that help patients learn to use their bodies and help them heal through a variety of physical exercises. Physical therapy assistants (PTAs) work under physical therapists to help carry out patients' treatment plans.

Every US state has its own set of regulations that govern the practice of physical therapy, but all states in the US require that PTs and PTAs graduate from an accredited degree program recognized by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Prospective PTs and PTAs must also pass the National Physical Therapy Examination as part of the licensing process. Students searching for an online physical therapy degree may also be interested in browsing our college rankings of the top schools offering online physical therapy degrees.

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Comprehensive List of Accredited Online Schools - Physical Therapy Degrees (17)

Overview of Available Online Physical Therapy Programs

PTs and PTAs are employed by hospitals, private practices, and other clinical settings, working closely with doctors, nurses, and other medical consultants. Many physical therapists, after gaining experience in such settings, choose to open their own PT practices, though this requires business skill and credentials. Still other physical therapists work for high-end fitness centers or major sports organizations.

Online PT programs are available at the undergraduate and graduate level. Undergraduate programs prepare students for a career as a physical therapy aide or assistant, while graduate programs prepare students to become a physical therapist. All online PT programs require students to complete on-site clinical work in a hospital or physical therapy office.

Undergraduate PT degrees teach students about the basic theories and practices of physical therapy, human anatomy, patient care, therapeutic exercises, and pathophysiology. An associate degree in physical therapy is appropriate for people who wish to be PTAs, or who would like to more slowly ease themselves into postsecondary study. A bachelor's degree is an essential step for all physical therapists, though students don't necessarily have to major in physical therapy in order to proceed to a graduate PT program. Because PT programs are grounded in the sciences, -- chemistry, physics, anatomy, biology, and kinesiology -- students who hold bachelor's degrees in these subjects often go into physical therapy.

PT graduate training programs draw all types of students and professionals. Some have expansive medical backgrounds but have opted for physical therapy training over nursing or medical school. Others may have athletic backgrounds and have garnered an interest in working with those who have injuries or other physical issues. Master's programs in PT typically last two years, and doctoral programs in PT last three years. Classes include gerontology, orthopaedics, clinical assessment, and medical law, which is especially useful for students who aspire to open their own practice.

Online Physical Therapy Associate Degrees

Associate degrees in physical therapy assistance involve the theory and practice of physical therapy, alongside the basic medical sciences and some general education courses. Clinical internships are integral to the degree and allow for ample hands-on experience. There are over 250 accredited PTA programs in the United States, which can all be found through the CAPTE website.

Associate degrees in physical therapy prepare students to provide therapeutic interventions to diverse clients under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist. Programs allow students to gain a comprehensive understanding of PT principles and practices. Applicants to associate degree programs should have earned a high school diploma or equivalent qualification. Program prerequisites vary by school but may include chemistry, communication, computer basics, English, and mathematics. Students are required to earn 60 to 74 credits, which takes approximately two years.

Associate PT programs place an emphasis on building a sound theoretical framework and acquisition of practical skills in physical therapy practice. The curriculum typically comprises theory, clinical education, and a fieldwork component. Areas covered by the coursework include acute and long-term care, anatomy and physiology, clinical documentation, clinical pathology, ethical issues in PT, functional mobility, lifespan development, healthcare resources, medical terminology, pathophysiology, and PT procedures. Associate degree programs usually have an internship or practicum requirement, which is performed in healthcare settings. This allows students to develop professional competencies in PT diagnosis, interventions, and evaluation.

Students of associate degree programs in physical therapy are trained to become PTAs. Work settings for program graduates include community health centers, hospitals, long-term care facilities, physicians’ offices, rehabilitation centers, schools, and sports facilities. Others take up positions in fitness arenas, home health agencies, industrial settings, office settings, and private practices. For candidates interested in a career in physical therapy that requires less study time, an associate degree is worth considering. Those who aspire to become physical therapists may apply for a bachelor’s or graduate degree and seek the appropriate certification.

Online Physical Therapy Bachelor's Degrees

A PT bachelor's degree program can be completed in four years. Students who are on a quarter system typically have to earn about 180 credits, while those attending a school on the semester system must earn somewhere around 160 credits. To begin a bachelor's degree program in physical therapy, students must earn a high school diploma or associate degree. 

Bachelor’s programs in physical therapy are often titled “pre-physical therapy” programs, because they are designed to prepare students for graduate programs in physical therapy. Therefore, general science classes are important, including anatomy, chemistry, biology, physiology, and kinesiology. By the time they graduate, PT majors will understand the way human bones, muscles, joints, and general human body works. Some programs include general medical courses, including those in ethics, the healthcare system, and healthcare law. Pharmacology and neuroscience are also important for physical therapy students. General education classes in the arts and humanities can also be expected in any undergraduate program.

Many of the chemistry, biology, physics, and physiology classes require students to complete lab components. Online students will need to come to campus in order to do these hands-on assignments. Pre-physical therapy degree programs also require students to complete an internship in a PT setting during their degree program. This internship helps students determine if the graduate program in physical therapy is really right for them; it’s also a prerequisite for entrance to many master’s programs. The PT internships in these degree programs usually require at least 500 hours of work in the physical therapy setting. Successful pre-physical therapy graduates can apply to either two-year PT master’s programs or three- to four-year doctoral programs.

Online Physical Therapy Master's Degrees

The shortest path to becoming a physical therapist takes six or seven years. The first step is to complete a four-year bachelor's degree. The next step is to complete one of three graduate programs: Master of Physical Therapy (MPT), Master of Science in Physical Therapy (MSPT), or Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). The master's programs require two to three years of coursework, and the doctorate requires three to four years. There are fewer master's programs in the United States than doctorate programs.

PT master's programs accept applicants with a variety of undergraduate majors. In the great majority of schools there isn't an official “pre-physical therapy” degree; however, PT programs do require some specific undergraduate classes that are important for graduate training. Examples of possible prerequisites include human anatomy, statistics, English composition, biology, physiology, and exercise science. Most programs also require GRE scores, physical therapy volunteer work, and a high undergraduate GPA in order to apply.

During the first year of the master's program, students take classes in pertinent science areas such as anatomy, physiology, and human biology. They also take courses in basic clinical procedures, such as patient interaction and interviewing. A course such as human disease and the musculoskeletal system teaches students about the different causes of movement problems and how each part of the body can affect movement. The second year of the program focuses more on specific care techniques for various types of injuries and illnesses, such as developmental and cardiopulmonary rehabilitation. Cardiopulmonary PT courses include techniques for treating patients with movement issues related to heart attacks, bypass surgery, or side effects of cystic fibrosis. Neurological physical therapy classes cover ways that physical therapy can assist in relieving vision, movement, and balance issues that arise after strokes or traumatic brain injury.

Although didactic coursework can be completed online, the physical therapy clinical courses and rotations will need to be completed on-site. The clinical component is a very significant part of the master's degree, so online students are advised to seek out a distance learning program with a campus in their vicinity. In clinical courses, students get to see physical therapy being performed in order to learn the hands-on techniques. Much of the second year of the master’s program is made up of clinical rotations, where students practice physical therapy under the guidance of a trained professional. Clinical internships are long and intensive and can take 32 weeks or more.

Online Physical Therapy Doctorate Degrees

The majority of professionals in field of physical therapy are required to have a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) in order to provide services to those who are recovering from work- and sports-related injuries, automobile accidents, or debilitating illnesses. Most doctorate programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education and take three years to complete at academic institutions. DPT programs usually consist of 120 to 130 credit hours. Applicants are required to have a baccalaureate degree and often must submit undergraduate transcripts, reference letters, and standardized test scores.

Doctoral degree programs in physical therapy teach students how to properly assess and treat patients with dysfunctional movements from pre-existing conditions. Students learn how to communicate with clients, devise action plans to meet their individual needs, keep track of patients' progress, and share preventive care techniques. While the general classes in DPT programs can be completed online, students will need to complete clinical courses on campus. Along with the didactic coursework, most programs also require students to complete fellowships or clinical rotations to help them gain hands-on experience. 

Examples of course topics include neuroscience, community health, human anatomy and physiology, injuries of the musculoskeletal system, pediatric physical therapy, pharmacology, research methods, and biomechanics. Classes like functional anatomy give students a medical science background, while specific physical therapy courses, like therapeutic modality interventions, discuss actual physical exercises and techniques students can use to rehabilitate patients.

DPT program graduates will need to earn a physical therapy license for their state before they can legally practice. To earn this license, students must graduate from a PT program that is approved by the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education, and they must pass the Physical Therapy National Examination.

Online Physical Therapy Certificates

There are different types of physical therapy certifications, some more advanced than others. For entry-level jobs, basic certification programs in physical therapy will generally not have any prerequisites. They will take about six months to a year to complete. For more advanced certifications, such as a physical therapy specialist, students will need to have some formal education and a set number of hours of practice in the field. Those certifications are usually exam based and take place a certain number of times per year.

Physical therapy courses will include fundamentals such as the history of physical therapy, physical therapy evaluation and assessment, and the roles and duties of a physical therapist. Students can also expect to take classes such as the human body, homeostasis, vital signs, posture, pathology, infections, pushing, pulling, terminology, muscles, injury and disability, heart functions, brain and the spinal cord, nervous system, joints, soft tissue, patience, communication, and law and ethics.

With only a certification, students can get jobs as entry-level physical therapy aides. In order to advance their career and become a licensed physical therapist, students will need to obtain additional formal education, such as a doctoral or master's degree in physical therapy.

What Students Will Learn in an Online Physical Therapy Program

Physical therapy degrees train students to rehabilitate patients who have some sort of functional impairment to their physical movement; this impairment may come from an injury, genetic defect, or disease. To learn the skills to help patients recover their range of motion or relieve pain, students take courses in natural science, physical therapy techniques, and patient management; this physical therapy theory is then applied during intensive clinical rotations. Here are some examples of the courses required throughout undergraduate and graduate PT programs:

  • Anatomy and Physiology: This foundational science course provides students with an in-depth understanding of the musculoskeletal system. Students learn to identify the different muscle and organ systems.
  • Basic Evaluation: Bedside manner and methods for evaluating patient cases are explored in this course. Students learn how to interview patients and review medical records.
  • Clinical Courses: Students learn the skills for interacting with patients in a medical setting. Through clinical rounds, students observe and diagnose patients under the guidance of an experienced physical therapist. Through these classes, students learn more about the diagnostic process and appropriate interventions for particular cases.
  • Exercise and Manual Techniques: Students study manipulation of the limbs and other exercises to increase range of motion. Hands-on stimulation, such as massage, is also discussed.
  • Human Development: Students study the growth and development of the human body, from conception to adulthood. This allows students to understand how illnesses can affect people differently at different life stages.
  • Kinesiology & Body Science: These classes cover the mechanics of the human body. Students learn how the musculoskeletal system works to afford movement, and how this movement can become impaired.
  • Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation: This is a specialized clinical course that covers particular exercises and assistive devices for musculoskeletal injuries. Topics like balance training and gait are discussed.
  • Natural Science: Neuroscience and cellular biology are two courses that are commonly included in graduate programs in physical therapy. Since physical movement is governed by many natural processes, these foundational science classes can shed light on different aspects of movement. For example, neuroscience courses discuss how trauma to the brain (through injuries like strokes) can influence how the body functions.
  • Therapeutic Exercise: Students learn the major strategies for relieving pain and restoring motion through exercise. This clinical course covers the exercises themselves and the skills for instructing and assisting patients in performing the exercises.

Is Hands-On Training Required?

Physical therapy is obviously a very hands-on profession, and physical therapy students need to learn clinical skills. Many online PT degrees are hybrid programs, which combine online courses with on-campus clinicals. Online classes cover topics like pharmacology, exercise physiology, communication, biomechanics, and physical agents. In on-site clinical classes and labs, students learn about musculoskeletal physical therapy, medical diagnosis, neuromuscular systems, pediatrics, and more.

In an online bachelor's degree, students learn general education topics and take the prerequisite classes required for PT graduate programs. Students can choose to major in any area that interests them, as long as they complete the classes necessary for grad school admission. Common required classes include biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, statistics, and psychology. Check out the graduate programs that you might want to attend to make sure you are taking the necessary prerequisites. Most programs require lab classes in subjects like biology and chemistry, and online students will need to complete these on-site.

If you are a practicing physical therapist, you may choose to earn the transitional Doctor of Physical Therapy online. This program is for PTs who have a Master of Physical Therapy. The physical therapy profession is moving away from the master's degree, and all schools have to offer the doctorate by 2017. The transitional DPT program is almost entirely online. It is a flexible way for current PTs to learn the latest skills in the field and to gain the higher credential.

If you are new to the physical therapy field, there are entry-level DPT programs that use a hybrid structure. This means that students complete some courses online, while also doing face-to-face study to learn clinical skills. These online/in-person programs may take longer to complete than a regular degree, although they are more flexible. You will need to be at your school's campus for several months each year to do clinical training.

Becoming a Physical Therapy Assistant

It takes many years of education to become a licensed physical therapist. If you like the work environment and knowledge required of the physical therapy profession but aren't sure if graduate school is right for you, you may want to consider the physical therapy assistant profession instead. PTs can't take on all the responsibilities of a practice by themselves, so PTAs help them with everyday administrative tasks, along with routine clinical ones. A career as a PTA requires an associate degree in physical therapy, a program that can be completed in about two years. Several community colleges, vocational schools and technical schools offer the program, and it can also be completed online.

Physical therapy assistants work under the direction of PTs to keep the practice running smoothly. They may work on office administration tasks, such as updating medical records, welcoming arriving patients, and maintaining office correspondence. Physical therapy assistants also work with patients before and after a treatment plan has been developed. They may take notes on the patient's medical history and ailments, help the patient with assigned exercises, or teach them how to use assistive equipment.

Like the physical therapy profession, PTAs have education requirements that are regulated at the state level. Those who wish to enter this profession must complete an accredited associate degree program; these online physical therapy assistant programs are offered by community and junior colleges, allied healthcare organizations, and career colleges. In these programs, students take general liberal arts courses, as well as natural science classes such as biology, exercise physiology, and kinesiology. The education of a PTA also involves training on conducting therapeutic exercises, providing therapeutic massage, fitting and adjusting devices on the body, and observing and evaluating data to facilitate a patient's physical progress. Students are required to complete a significant clinical internship in order to get hands-on experience before they hit the job market.

After graduation, certification and licensing are the next steps toward starting work as a PTA. Requirements vary from state to state, but most states require CPR and first aid examinations, as well as a certain amount of fieldwork hours. Prospective students should contact their state's regulatory board to learn about their exact professional requirements for PTAs.

Accreditation and Licensing Requirements

All professional physical therapists and physical therapist assistants must obtain a license before they can legally practice in the United States. Licensing requirements are regulated by individual state PT boards, but most require graduation from an accredited program, a certain number of hours of clinical work, and a passing score on the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE). Some states also require that applicants pass separate tests on medical ethics or jurisprudence. Along with the required state license, physical therapists also have the opportunity to earn voluntary professional certification in specialist areas; credentials are offered by physical therapy professional organizations.

The Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) is the most important accrediting agency for graduate programs in physical therapy. Accreditation ensures that PT and PTA degree programs adhere to certain academic standards and graduate competent professionals. PT programs are only accredited at the master's and doctoral degree level, and the majority of accredited programs are doctorates. PTA programs are accredited at the associate level. The NPTE is administered by The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). To be eligible to sit for the NPTE, applicants must complete a CAPTE-accredited degree program or an alternative academic program that the FSBPT deems acceptable.

To maintain licensure in most states, PTs must complete continuing education classes every few years to update their training. This chart, provided by the Siskind Susser Law Firm, contains a detailed list of each state's PT licensure requirements, but students should contact their state board directly to make sure they have the most current information. The FSBPT has more information about the eligibility requirements for the national exam and contact information for state licensing boards.

Related Careers and Specializations

A practicing physical therapist (PT) may at some point in their career choose to pursue a specialty in one aspect of the physical therapy field. In order to take this next step in their career, they must complete a certification in physical therapy. Board certification can be used to demonstrate your particular skills, and it can help increase your practice. The certification is based on a broad working knowledge of physical therapy in general and the development of a deeper understanding of one particular kind of physical therapy, such as geriatrics or orthopaedics. Once a physical therapist has chosen to pursue certification in their specialty, they must complete a set number of hours working in their specialty and pass a certification exam.

According to American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS), the certification process takes roughly one year. Candidates must accumulate 2,000 hours of clinical experience in the specialty they are pursuing, then sit for the certification exam; however, depending on work environment and other outside factors, it make take more than a year complete the number of hours needed to qualify for the exam. There are no required courses to obtain a certificate in physical therapy, but the American Physical Therapy Association offers physical therapists continuing education opportunities that deal directly with specialties for which one can later become certified.

ABPTS currently certifies PTs in the following eight areas:

  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary: Cardiovascular and pulmonary rehabilitation physical therapists help to treat patients with cardiopulmonary disorders or those who have had cardiac or pulmonary surgery. 
  • Clinical Electrophysiology: Electrophysiology is the study of the electric functions of the body, and PTs who specialize in this area are prepared to record and interpret monitored data and apply their findings to a patient's physical therapy plan. 
  • Geriatrics: Physical therapy for the elderly and aging will be in higher demand as the US population ages. Elderly patients often deal with multiple physical issues, including muscle or joint pain and soreness, diseases, or other medical issues, often requiring the help of physical therapists. 
  • Neurology: Neurology physical therapists must be extremely patient, as progress with patients suffering from brain injuries is often very slow. Neurology physical therapists must often help people re-learn basic functions, including walking and talking. 
  • Orthopaedics: Orthopaedic physical therapy is one of the most common kinds of physical therapy, as these PTs work with people who have broken or weak bones. 
  • Pediatrics: Pediatric physical therapy is administered to young children or babies. Those who work in this profession must be patient and good with young children. 
  • Sports: Professional sports teams, college sports teams, and fitness centers often employ physical therapists to work with injured athletes. Some colleges offer entire degree programs dedicated to this specialization, usually known as sports medicine. 
  • Women's Health: Women's health specialists assist patients with medical conditions such as pre- and postnatal discomfort, incontinence, osteoporosis, and lower back pain.

References

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