For the next eight years, the healthcare industry will be the largest supplier of employment opportunities. But Meredith Harris knew healthcare would be the best place to develop a fulfilling career long before recent projections.
Originally planning to embark on a career in pediatrics, Harris, then 16, applied for and got a summer job at Children’s Hospital in Boston as a nurse’s aid. As she observed her surroundings, she caught wind of a new career route she didn’t know much about but was intrigued by: physical therapy.
Physical therapists (PTs) treat individuals, from newborns to the elderly, who have illnesses or injuries that limit their ability to move and function efficiently in their daily lives. Common functional problems that PTs provide care for include back and neck injuries; sprains, strains and fractures; and work- and sports-related injuries. They also care for burn and stroke victims, amputees, and those with medical conditions, such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, diabetes, and obesity.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for physical therapists is expected to grow by 30% between 2008 and 2018 – a much faster than average rate. As of 2008 there were 185,500 licensed physical therapists in the U.S. That number is expected to spike to 241,700. Demand will be driven by the increasing elderly population, who are vulnerable to chronic and debilitating conditions, and Baby Boomers who are increasingly suffering heart attacks and strokes, increasing the demand for cardiac and physical rehabilitation. Trauma victims and newborns with birth defects will also require the attention of physical therapists.
Harris reflects on her career as one that has enabled her to “thrive in several areas.” She has focused half of her 43-year career on working with children who have cerebral palsy. And in the 1980s, as the Bronx, New York, became an epicenter for HIV- and AIDS-related cases, Harris dedicated herself to working with young children who were diagnosed with the disease, since they would be faced with various types of neurological and cardiac problems.
In the second half of her career, Harris has been working with elderly people prone to falling. She has collaborated with the National Institutes of Health in reviewing proposals for rehabilitation research, is currently an associate professor of physical therapy at Northeastern University, and recently accepted a traditional Fulbright Scholar Award. Next year, Harris will be in South Africa for six to 10 months, working with colleagues at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University to conduct research on the impact of exercise on people with HIV/AIDS.
“Physical therapy can be such a powerful profession,” says Harris, who adds that people who are generally interested in working with people, can be team players, and are skilled listeners would be a fitting candidate in the field. “It’s important to be sensitive to what people need. You get to use all those years of training and education, [and utilize] problem solving skills to make a significant change in the way someone moves.”
At a Glance:
Salary: The median annual income for PTs is between $60,000 and $86,000.
Education and advancement: PTs must have a master’s degree, at minimum, but a majority of them have doctorates in physical therapy. An undergraduate degree is required for a PT accredited master’s program. It is crucial to have volunteer experience in physical therapy before applying to a program. Harris suggests shadowing a physical therapist in your area.
PTs will also need to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination, as well as a state exam. You can also consider becoming a physical therapist assistant, which only requires an associate’s degree.
To find an accredited program, check out the American Physical Therapy Association’s Student Resources.