From working with ballet dancers to collaborating with veterinarians, many physical therapists (PTs) are carving out a variety of useful yet nontraditional practice niches in response to changing societal needs and demands.
Pamela Duffy, PT, MEd, OCS, who has held several leadership positions in the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), offers insights into six emerging practice areas identified by the APTA.
PTs play a valuable behind-the-scenes role in the performing arts, providing services to dancers, musicians, figure skaters, gymnasts, circus performers and actors. For performers whose careers depend on healthy bodies, taking extended periods of time off from work is not a realistic option, Duffy says. PTs can be instrumental in facilitating performers' recovery from injuries, supervising training programs and conducting injury-prevention seminars. Working with performers is "a great public relations activity for physical therapists," says Duffy, a veteran clinician in private practice in West Des Moines, Iowa, who has provided services to dancers from the Des Moines Ballet.
As the number of obese Americans rises, healthcare professionals from all disciplines are stepping up efforts to combat the problem. PTs are uniquely qualified to join the fight thanks to their experience working with clients suffering from obesity-related injuries or conditions like arthritis, stroke, heart disease and diabetes, Duffy says. Because it is safer for many obese clients, especially those who have never exercised and are at high risk of injury, to be guided in their weight-loss efforts by a PT than by a personal trainer, opportunities for PTs to develop and oversee wellness and exercise programs for obese clients are on the rise.
Physical therapists have been opening practices within health clubs for several years, and the trend has reached all corners of the country. "It's definitely been a win-win situation for health clubs and for physical therapists," Duffy says. Health clubs welcome the credibility PTs provide, and patients like the convenience of receiving treatment in a health club. In addition, patients benefit from the opportunity to transition seamlessly from a hands-on PT program to an independent wellness and fitness program, Duffy says.
Although the practice isn't widespread, PTs have joined the emergency department or urgent-care teams at some hospitals. These therapists work in conjunction with physicians to evaluate and treat patients with low back pain and other acute musculoskeletal and neuromuscular conditions, Duffy says. A PT who initially sees a patient in an emergency department or urgent-care center may also provide follow-up treatment in the community once the patient is released.
Many physical therapy practices focus solely on women's health, addressing issues such as incontinence, osteoporosis, post-mastectomy care, and fitness and wellness. Duffy says that such practices are thriving, because many women feel more comfortable addressing sensitive issues with practitioners who specialize in women's health.
A very small but growing number of physical therapists are involved in animal rehabilitation, primarily for horses and dogs. They may work at a specific veterinary clinic or collaborate with several veterinarians. They may also work directly with horse trainers, Duffy says.
Succeeding off the beaten path in PT takes motivation and dedication. Physical therapists or physical therapy students interested in entering a nontraditional PT niche should thoroughly research their area of interest and find a mentor who can both guide them to resources and challenge them, Duffy says. The APTA maintains a list of experienced clinicians willing to serve as mentors. The APTA's special-interest groups are also available to assist clinicians who want to enter a specialty area or start a small business.