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VA Offers Unique Opportunities to Therapy Professionals

VA Offers Unique Opportunities to Therapy Professionals

Looking for a career as a therapy or rehab professional in a top-notch setting? How about a healthcare system where the medical practice, equipment and record-keeping are state-of-the-art, the patients are considered heroes and the employee benefits surpass those most private employers offer?

Then consider a career with the Veterans Health Administration, the US Department of Veterans Affairs' health service.

"We provide the rehab and care for war-wounded veterans," says Mary Park, a human resources consultant at the Veterans Health Administration in Washington, DC. The VA also provides routine medical care, including a variety of rehab therapies, to more than 5 million veterans in its 1,000-plus hospitals and clinics nationwide.

Since March 2003, more than 31,000 servicemen and women have been seriously injured in Iraq, with wounds such as second- and third-degree burns, eye damage, brain trauma and paralysis, according to iCasualties.org. Working at a VA medical facility allows you to help these recent veterans return to a civilian life that's as normal as possible.

Excellent Resources, Low Turnover

With a single payer -- Uncle Sam -- the VA can offer a full range of treatment options with less bureaucracy than private healthcare providers. "We come in as a team and see what treatment modalities the patient may need," Park says.

VA healthcare workers can also stay on the leading edge professionally through connections to organizations such as the VA Palo Alto Rehabilitation Research and Development Center. The Palo Alto center conducts scientific research on bone and joint rehabilitation and translates the results into clinical applications.

This satisfying professional environment is a powerful retention factor, agency officials say. "Our turnover is 9 percent versus over 20 percent in the private sector," Park says.

The patients are another. "Healthcare workers who haven't had exposure to veterans come to love the veteran population here," says James Burrows, spokesman for VA Medical Center in Providence, Rhode Island.

Of course, patients at VA medical facilities are not a simple cross-section of American society. "Our patient population is skewed higher in age [and is nearly all male]," says Tom Wheeler, PT, coordinator of the rehabilitation and physical medicine service at the Providence VA. "We see 18-year-olds and 100-year-olds."

Full Range of Therapy, Rehab Positions

The VA offers a broad range of career opportunities to therapy and rehab professionals.

"We have occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, blind rehabilitation specialists and prosthetists," Wheeler says. Therapy and rehab teams at the Providence and other VA facilities also include OT assistants, orthotists, physical therapists and PT assistants.

In fall 2006, the Providence VA was treating about a half-dozen Iraq veterans as outpatients. The VA also provides psychological and psychiatric treatment mostly to the more than 250,000 veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

As more war-wounded servicemen and women work their way through the military healthcare system -- especially at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Bethesda Naval Medical Center -- they will transition to the VA healthcare system in greater numbers. "We're going to be looking for PTs with knowledge of amputees and polytrauma," Wheeler says. These patients will provide great professional challenges to the VA workers who treat them, he says.

VA healthcare workers can seek advancement through promotion or advanced training. "If you want to go higher, you can take on a leadership role," says Park. You can also bolster your qualifications by furthering your education and getting additional certifications, often with VA financial help.

"When I came here eight years ago, I was astounded at the educational opportunities," says Wheeler, who has taken at least a half-dozen continuing-education courses, including a weeklong seminar on the care and treatment of war-wounded amputees with prosthetics.

Compensation and Benefits

Pay at VA medical facilities is good, not great. "We can't be a pay leader, but we are competitive," Park says.

A listing for a physical therapist at the VA Loma Linda Healthcare System in California offered a salary of $47,024 to $67,137. By contrast, median pay for all physical therapists in nearby San Bernardino was $67,676, according to Salary.com, eclipsing the top of the pay range for the VA position.

However, VA jobs come with benefits that generally exceed those offered in the private sector, including generous vacation and sick days as well as a defined-benefit retirement plan.

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