Physical therapy is for patients who have bodily function and/or movement limitations. The limitations are often the result of diseases, surgeries, injuries, and aging. A certified physical therapist (PT) is a health professional who’s primary responsibilities are to help their patients by providing physical rehabilitation, intervention methods, and prevention exercises.
All US states require licensing to become a legal PT. A doctorate in physical therapy (DPT) is also mandatory. In addition to a DPT, PTs must take and pass the National Physical Therapy Examination. The exam is given by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.
Initial Education Requirements for Physical Therapist
The American Physical Therapy Association is a professional organization that represents physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, and physical therapy students. And according to the APTA, any student wishing to become a PT must enroll in an accredited DPT program.
Before 2002, an APTA-approved master’s degree or bachelor’s degree was sufficient to become a licensed PT. And currently, an experienced PT with either of these degrees is allowed to continue working without returning to school to earn a doctorate. This process is known as “being grandfathered in,” which means being exempt from new rules.
However, APTA has officially phased out bachelor’s degree programs. And the remaining APTA-approved master’s degree programs are being converted to DPT programs.
Doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT)
The DPT is a combination of clinical experience, classroom lectures, and laboratory work. And the program generally takes 3-years to complete.
DPT students study subjects dealing with the human body. Some common study subjects include:
- Anatomy – the study of human organs, structure, bone, and tissue.
- Biomechanics – the study of biological systems in humans and the function and structure.
- Human bodily functions – the study of different functions performed by the human body.
- Kinesiology – the study of human movement and how it affects health and quality of life.
- Pharmacology – the study of how drugs affect the body, common side effects, and how the human body uses drugs.
- Physiology – the study of how biological systems within humans interact and function.
- Cardiopulmonary systems – The study of the human cardiovascular system.
- Musculoskeletal systems – the study of how the human skeletal system and muscular system work together to move and support the body.
Completing the DPT program is the beginning of becoming a licensed PT. After earning a DPT, passing the National Physical Therapy Examination given by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy is the next step. However, states have different licensing requirements. While the test is mandatory in all states, additional licensing requirements vary.
It’s worth repeating that PT students must enroll in an accredited DPT program.
The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) is an accrediting agency with national recognition. CAPTE maintains a directory of accredited PT programs.
The Role of Continuing Education
Physical therapy continuing education is a requirement in most states. Where continuing education is required, a PT must take the required courses before renewing their PT license.
Every state has its own PT continuing education requirements. However, in all states, it’s mandatory to complete all required hours before license renewal.
Here are the PT continuing education requirements for 20 states, in alphabetical order. This list provides a glimpse into how different states have different continuing education requirements. Hours are listed as actual clock hours, continuing education units (CEUs), or continuing competence units (CCUs):
- Alabama – requires 10 hours of PT continuing education every year by the license renewal date. At least 2 hours must come from Alabama Jurisprudence courses every 5-years. A PT license is good for one year and expires on October 1. The renewal period is July 1st through September 30th.
- Alaska – requires 24 hours of PT continuing education every 2-years. The license renewal deadline is June 30th in even-numbered years.
- Arizona – requires 20 PT continuing education hours every 2-years. The license renewal deadline is August 31st in even-numbered years.
- Arkansas – Twenty hours of continuing education is required every 2-years. The license renewal date is December 31st in even-numbered years.
- California – The state of California requires 30 hours of PT continuing education. This is required every 2-years. The license renewal deadline depends on the PT’s birth month. For example, a PT born in January would have a license renewal date of January 31st, beginning 2-years after the license is issued. And a PT born in December would have a license renewal date of December 31st, beginning 2-years after the license is issued.
- Colorado – Thirty-hours of PT continuing education is required every 2-years. The renewal deadline is October 31st, in even-numbered years.
- Connecticut – Twenty hours of PT continuing education is required every year. License renewal date is the last day of PT’s birth month. A PT born in January would have a January 31st renewal date every year.
- Delaware – Requires 3.0 continuing education units (CEUs) every 2-years. Generally, 3.0 units is equal to 30 hours. Two hours must come from ethics courses and a CPR class. The license renewal deadline is January 31st every 2-years.
- District of Columbia – Requires 4 CEUs (equal to 40 hours) of continuing education every 2-years. The license renewal deadline is January 31st in odd-numbered years.
- Florida – Requires 24 hours of continuing education every 2-years. The license renewal deadline is November 30th in odd-numbered years.
- Georgia – Thirty hours of PT continuing education is required every 2-years. The deadline for license renewal is December 31st in odd-numbered years.
- Hawaii – Requires 30 CCUs (equals to 30 hours) every 2-years. December 31st in even-numbered years is the license renewal deadline.
- Idaho – Sixteen hours of continuing education is required every year. The license renewal deadline is the last day of the PT’s birth month.
- Illinois – Forty hours of continuing education every 2-years. The license renewal deadline is September 30th in even-numbered years.
- Indiana – Twenty-two hours of continuing education is required every 2-years. The license renewal deadline is June 30th in even-numbered years.
- Iowa – Iowa requires 40 hours every 2-years for PT continuing education. License renewal is the 15th of the month of the PT’s birth month, every 2-years.
- Kansas – Kansas requires 40 hours of PT continuing education every 2-years. The license renewal deadline is December 31st in even-numbered years.
- Kentucky – Thirty hours of continuing education is required every 2-years. The license renewal deadline occurs in odd-numbered years on March 31st.
- Louisiana – Louisiana requires 30 hours of continuing education every 2-years. The license renewal deadline is March 31st.
- Maine – Maine doesn’t have PT continuing education requirements.
The examples listed above demonstrate the differences between states when it comes to PT continuing education requirements.
As we work to cover all 50 states, if you don’t find yours listed, check directly with the state’s licensing board to learn about their PT educational requirements. This is also the best way to get the most updated information.
Understand Continuing Education Credits
In the list above, continuing education hours are either actual clock hours, continuing education units (CEUs), or continuing competence units (CCUs). It’s important to understand the differences between hours, CEUs, and CCUs.
- Continuing Education Hours – When a program gives a specific number of continuing education hours, it usually means actual clock hours spent in the course. For example, Alabama requires 10 hours of continuing education. That means the PT needs an actual 10 clock hours of courses.
- Continuing Education Units (CEUs) – Some programs list time in units instead of hours. For example, Delaware requires 3.0 CEUs. It’s listed that way by the program, but 3.0 CEUs is equal to 30 hours. This is good to know in case the program lists CEUs instead of clock hours.
- Continuing Competence Units (CCUs) – Some states now use the term “continuing competence” instead of continuing education. And states that have made this change list continuing education hours as actual clock hours.
For example, before switching to CCUs, a program might have required 3 CEUs for PT continuing education. But now, the program would list the requirement as 30 CCUs of continuing education. Two CEUs would become 20 CCUs, and so on.
Continuing competence is defined as a PT’s level of knowledge, ability, and skill throughout their career. Some states feel that definition is more fitting than continuing education.
It’s important to note that some states count 50 minutes as an hour for continuing education purposes. States that count an hour this way include New York and Florida.
Finding Approved PT Continuing Education Courses
There are several PT continuing education course providers available. However, it’s important to take courses from approved course providers. Take the APTA Learning Center, for example.
Continuing education requirements are decided by each state’s governing board of physical therapy. And each state has its own rules and procedures about courses and hours. However, each PT is responsible for finding their own courses from an approved course provider.
The APTA Learning Center is an example of an approved online and in-person course provider. Before enrolling, it’s suggested that all students make sure the courses are still on the approved list. Currently, APTA CEUs are acceptable to most physical therapy licensing boards in most states.
However, those needing PT continuing education should check to make sure online courses are accepted. Online courses are generally acceptable, but some states make exceptions to that rule. As a rule, check that the course is acceptable before enrolling.
Each course description should contain all the necessary information. The description should list the class’s name, what the class covers, and how many hours, CEUs, or CCUs it provides.
Some states require course providers to apply for pre-approval before they can offer a course. For example, California, Texas, and Oklahoma require APTA to get pre-approval for those states’ courses.
APTA includes the course approval codes in the course description to show that courses are approved. For instance, APTA’s approved provider code is CPTA2020-2021 for the state of California.
Note that some states limit how many continuing education hours are allowed. For instance, a PT might get more hours than they actually need. This happens when course hours total more than the number of required hours. In some cases, these extra hours are carried over for the next renewal period. But in other cases, the extra hours are discarded.
For example, Nevada doesn’t approve anything above 1.5 CEUs (15 hours). A PT in Nevada needs 1.5 CEUs (15 hours), and any hours in excess are discarded. No hours are allowed to carry over to the next renewal date. So even if a PT earns additional hours, the hours don’t count towards the requirement.
If Nevada considers a course as having too many hours, the state will reduce the hours earned. For example, APTA has a conference that counts as 1.8 CEUs for attendance. But Nevada only approves up to 1.0 CEUs for attending the conference.
Additionally, Nevada doesn’t accept more than .8 CEUs (8 hours) for courses they consider as non-clinical.
It’s also possible that an approved provider might have some courses that aren’t approved. For example, Ohio only accepts some APTA online courses. Some of the online courses are approved, but some don’t count towards the continuing education requirements.
In Pennsylvania, APTA is a pre-approved provider. But Pennsylvania also doesn’t accept all of APTA’s courses. For example, Pennsylvania doesn’t accept CEUs for the following:
- Any courses dealing with practice management.
- Any courses dealing with starting a PT practice.
- Any courses dealing with dry-needling, an alternative therapy technique.
- Any courses dealing with payment policies and regulatory issues.
Another consideration is that some states require state-specific courses. For example, Texas requires an ethics course that is specifically about Texas regulations and laws. A PT can take a general ethics class from an approved provider, but it won’t count towards the ethics requirement unless the course is specifically about Texas.
Because of different rules and exceptions to the rules, it’s recommended to make sure the course is acceptable before enrolling.
Taking Local Courses
Some course providers offer online and in-person courses. For example, the University of South Alabama offers the Department of Physical Therapy Continuing Education Series. The courses are taught on or near campus or online via Zoom.
The university’s Department of Physical Therapy offers the courses and are pre-approved by the Alabama Board of Physical Therapy.
The series offers courses that are between 2 to 4 hours long. Attendance is mandatory for the in-person courses. And for Zoom courses, you need an electronic device with the Zoom app installed.
For some students, online courses are the best option. Websites such as HomeCEU help PTs find online courses. Search courses by state, industry, and format.
For example, a PT in Colorado will find a list of courses that satisfy Colorado PT continuing education requirements. However, as always, check to make sure the courses are approved before enrolling.
In the example above, the PT in Colorado will see courses are available in two formats – video and text. Text courses are self-paced and available via PDF or a physical copy sent via mail. Video courses are filmed classes available to stream online or order in DVD format.
Other options include creating a package that’s a combination of videos, text, and webinars. The package option allows the student to create a specialty package at a special price.
Do Webinars Count Towards Continuing Education Requirements?
Courses are available in several formats – including webinars.
Some course providers offer live continuing education webinars. These aren’t the same as pre-recorded lectures. Live webinars count as online courses, but they occur at a scheduled time with online attendees. There’s usually an opportunity for attendees to interact with the speaker or lecturer.
Live webinars differ from pre-recorded courses because of the ability to interact in real-time. Having the chance to ask questions in real-time is often better than using email.
Some states that require in-person courses will accept live webinars as a replacement. Since webinars give attendees the ability to ask questions in real-time, some states consider that just as good as an in-person course.
However, some states limit the number of online courses that are allowed. For example, Michigan only allows 50 percent of CEUs to come from online sources such as pre-recorded classes, lectures, and webinars. The remaining 50 percent must come from in-person courses.
If enrolling in a live webinar or seminar, consider the following to decide if the course meets your needs.
- Is the live course available for more than one session? Attendance is mandatory, so make sure the course is at an appropriate time.
- Does the course offer the option to replay it later? This helps go over notes or revisit part of the discussion.
- Is seating limited? Some live events have limited seating. Make sure seating isn’t an issue before enrolling.
- Are live webinars accredited in the state? Some states don’t give credit for live webinars. It’s important to answer this question before enrolling.
- What type of devices are necessary to access the webinar? Generally, a computer, tablet, or smartphone is required. But some courses might not display properly on a tablet.
- Is there a customer support number or email? Technical issues are a possibility when dealing with webinars. Make sure it’s possible to contact customer support if something goes wrong during the live webinar.
PT Continuing Education
The continuing education options for PTs are plentiful. The important thing is to make sure to follow local state guidelines and requirements. There are several rules, exceptions to the rules, and more that are necessary to follow.
When in doubt, it helps to contact the local state PT licensing board. This is the most reliable method for receiving accurate and updated information.
Get Credit for the Courses
When a PT completes the required hours, it’s necessary to submit a completion certificate to their local PT licensing board. Some states request that each PT submit their own certificate. But some states require the course provider to submit the certificate. The course completion certificate is necessary to renew the PT license.
The Career of a Physical Therapist
A physical therapist works with patients of all ages and walks of life. There are elderly patients, infant patients, and everyone in between. No matter their age or background, any person can struggle with physical issues or injuries that need treatment.
A physical therapist is a professional who helps relieve the patient’s pain or discomfort. The therapist develops a plan to treat each patient’s ailment specifically. The goal is to reduce pain, repair damage, and promote physical health. In short, the pain often caused by physical therapy eventually leads to a pain-free or less painful body.
The therapist will also track a patient’s progress. Based on the progress, the therapist will create new goals for the patient. If at-home exercises are possible, the patient will learn those as well. In some cases, a PT might also incorporate a patient’s family members for doing therapy exercises at-home.
Various types of therapies are used during a physical therapy session. Therapeutic exercises and strength training are the main methods that a PT uses. But electrotherapy and massage are also common methods. And sometimes, equipment is necessary, such as reflex hammers, inversion tables, exercise bikes, and TENS units.
A PT is likely to treat a variety of conditions. Common problems include arthritis, burns, sports injuries, back pain, scoliosis, and amputations.
The Future of Employment for Physical Therapists
In 2018, there were an estimated 247,700 licensed physical therapists in the United States. These therapists work in various locations. A hospital might have physical therapists on staff, but most work in private physical therapy practices. The physical therapy profession is expected to grow by more than 20 percent by 2028.
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