The physical therapy profession is expanding and evolving, and specialized training gives students the skills they need to enter this rewarding and exciting field. Students can build a scientific foundation and learn the medical theories that guide clinical practice while acquiring hands-on experience on how to give quality care on a daily basis. This guide describes what is required to earn online physical therapy degrees, what to look for in a program, and what job opportunities are available after graduation.
While online programs may not be the first place prospective students look for physical therapy degrees, the advancement of interactive learning platforms has enabled many schools to create programs providing the flexibility of online learning without sacrificing crucial real-world experience found in traditional classrooms. With programs covering all degree levels, students can balance existing obligations while furthering their education. The search tool below provides students with a list of online physical therapy programs tailored to their educational requirements.
In order to work as a physical therapist, students must earn a master’s or Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree and pass a licensing examination. There are ways that students can prepare for doctoral programs and position themselves so they are more likely to be admitted into the graduate school of their choice. The field of physical therapy encompasses other occupations that do not require a graduate degree. For example, an associate degree is the minimum qualification for physical therapist assistants.
While some schools offer fully online physical therapy degrees, others use hybrid content delivery, blending in-person experience with online instruction. The virtual classroom could be a good match for subjects like medical terminology or physiology, which require extensive self-study and memorization. Web-based quizzes and exercises can help students assess their knowledge, and electronic content delivery allows them to repeat modules as needed to solidify their grasp of a subject.
The following are descriptions of online physical therapy degrees that prepare students for different roles in the field.
Web-based degrees on the pre-doctoral level are few and far between, but depending on the school, students may have the option to take some classes online, even in a traditional degree program. Taking a few online courses can help students get accustomed to a distance learning environment and the time management skills required, laying the groundwork for students who plan to juggle the rigors of a PT doctoral program with other responsibilities.
A pre-physical therapy bachelor’s degree provides a way for students to familiarize themselves with the field before enrolling in an advanced program. In addition to general education classes, students also take the science courses they need for their future studies.
Courses found in online pre-physical therapy bachelor’s degree programs could include the following.
Human anatomy and physiology: Study of the structure and functions of the human body, including the skeletal, muscular and nervous systems. Other topics include cells, tissues and how the body maintains homeostasis. More advanced modules cover metabolism, how to balance acid in the body, and additional body systems such as immune, respiratory, reproductive and urinary.
Genetics: Analysis of the principles of heredity. Some of the topics that are covered include population genetics, gene sampling, DNA structure, molecular change and the replication of DNA.
General chemistry: This course builds on what students may have learned in high school chemistry classes, with a focus on the composition and structure of matter. A general chemistry class investigates topics such as atoms, molecules, compounds, elements and the different states of matter.
Health science statistics: Students explore statistical methods for gathering and analyzing health data. Topics include variability, correlation, analysis of variance, T-tests and inferential statistics.
In addition to taking coursework, students in these programs are generally required to participate in laboratory work. Also, some bachelor’s programs in physical therapy allow students to choose an area of concentration—such as orthopedics, pediatrics or sports therapy—which gives them the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of a certain area of the field.
Students who wish to familiarize themselves with the field before pursuing an advanced degree may also pursue physical therapy assistant training through an online associate or bachelor’s degree, as well as a certificate. In these programs, students learn the fundamentals of physical therapy assisting and gain hands-on experience working with a licensed physical therapist. This allows students to see firsthand what it’s like to work in the industry, while also getting invaluable guidance from someone currently in the field.
The following are examples of courses offered in online physical therapy assistant degree programs at the undergraduate level.
Physical therapist assistant procedures: Class builds a fundamental understanding of how to work in the clinical environment. Topics covered include body mechanics, gait training, mobility, cardiopulmonary resuscitation procedures, vital signs, the Heimlich maneuver and patient draping.
Clinical kinesiology: An in-depth look at the anatomy of the nervous and musculoskeletal systems. Among the typical topics are the normal gait cycle, manual muscle testing and goniometry, or the measuring of angles to determine range of motion.
Principles of rehabilitation: Course familiarizes students with strategies for treating patients who have complex disorders, such as developmental conditions. Subjects include theories of neurological development and the nervous system. Students learn about working with a patient that has an abnormal gait, types of supported devices used to treat patients and kinds of wheelchairs on the market.
Pathophysiology: Course provides an understanding of the relationship between diseases and body tissues and organs. In particular, students focus on how different types of diseases affect the musculoskeletal, nervous and immune systems of the body and the treatment for patients undergoing these changes.
In addition to taking classes, students in these programs may have the opportunity to complete a clinical externship at a rehabilitation center. Depending on the school and student’s schedule, online associate degree programs generally take 1-2 years to complete, while online bachelor’s degrees can be finished in about four years of full-time study. Students who choose to enroll in a physical therapy assistant certificate program may be able to finish their studies within one year.
At the master’s degree level, very few schools off an online graduate degree in physical therapy; however, some colleges and universities offer online Doctorates of Physical Therapy. Available opportunities for online doctorates include direct entry programs as well as transitional programs. Different DPT programs have varying requirements for admission and graduation, so it’s a good idea to contact schools for exact details.
Online physical therapy degrees that are earned by students who have completed a bachelor’s degree are called direct entry doctoral programs. These degrees build on the knowledge and training students previously received, giving them an advanced understanding of clinical concepts and more hands-on training needed to obtain a job in the field. In addition to earning a bachelor’s degree, admissions requirements may include a good score on the GRE standardized test, an interview with the admissions committee or a writing sample.
Students enrolled in these programs gain a well-rounded view of physical therapy by studying the best practices of the field, behavioral sciences, and clinical theory. The following are some courses direct entry doctoral students may be able to take.
Biomechanics: Analysis of human movement and the principles of biomechanics as they relate to movement and stability. Core subjects include the biomechanics of lower limbs and the musculoskeletal system, examples of normal and abnormal human gait, how to analyze movement, and the structural and functional elements of human joints.
Clinical exercise: Theory and practice of therapeutic exercise, as well as methods of obtaining information from a patient in order to create and implement an appropriate plan of care. Topics include stretching, strength training, endurance, flexibility, aerobic training and balance.
Business management: Students learn about the managerial role in a physical therapy office or clinic. Classes introduce topics such as best practices for reimbursement, risk management, managing members of a team and how to handle ethical issues that arise in a physical therapy practice.
Pediatrics: This course gives students an understanding of pediatric practice, and how working with children is different from treating adults. Students learn to evaluate pediatric patients, develop a treatment plan for them and monitor their progress. Class may also cover human development and the legal issues associated with treating young people in a physical therapy practice.
Student who have earned a bachelor’s or master’s degree in physical therapy from an accredited college or university and have one to two years of experience working in the field as a licensed PT in the U.S. may go on to earn online physical therapy degrees called transitional doctorates. These programs cater to students who have demanding schedules, but would like to advance their studies and move up in their careers. Enrollees can sharpen their skills while learning about advancements in the field.
The following sample courses may be available in transitional doctorate degree programs. Most online transitional programs have been designed to fill the gap between a bachelor’s or master’s PT degree and an entry-level PT doctorate.
Clinical decision making: Methods for making effective decisions based on the latest scientific research, recommendations from colleagues, work experience and even intuition. Students learn to apply experience and evidence-based research in treating patients and to critically evaluate the information acquired to determine how it best applies to each individual’s circumstances.
Clinical nutrition: Study of the role that nutrition plays in physiological functions of the body. Subjects include promoting healthy diet strategies to patients, eating disorders, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and the nutritional requirements that aid in rehabilitation.
Ethics and law in physical therapy: As practitioners deal with the day-to-day tasks related to treating patients, they must keep in mind how the law and ethical standards affect the physical therapy profession. Class discusses applying ethical principles to patient care, and the federal and state laws that relate to the field.
Pharmacology: Students learn how to manage drug regimens of physical therapy patients. Subjects of study include how the body absorbs, distributes and excretes different drugs. Among other topics are the side effects of drugs commonly used in a clinical practice and the relationship between drug treatments and nutrition.
Students enrolled in transitional physical therapy doctorates may have the opportunity to specialize in an area of interest, depending on the program. In addition, they may be required to complete a research project or dissertation.
There are several options for those who want to pursue an online physical therapy degree, but not all programs necessarily meet every student’s needs. The following are some criteria that aspiring physical therapists should evaluate when deciding which online program they would like to pursue.
First and foremost, students must find a program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, or CAPTE. Education through an accredited program is a major milestone for aspiring physical therapy assistants and physical therapists.
Students should consider their career goals when evaluating schools and choose one that allows them to concentrate on the area of study most relevant to them. Physical therapy is a broad field, with optional areas of focus such as geriatrics, orthopedics, pediatrics, business management or women’s health. The next step is to find a program that has extensive and in-depth course offerings on those topics.
Students who are interested in conducting research in physical therapy should look for a program that gives them the opportunity to participate in such projects. For example, some students have the chance to present the research they conducted in school to the American Physical Therapy Association, or have their work published in industry journals.
This online pre-physical therapy associate degree program aims for small class sizes that allow students to get individualized instruction from their professors. For the on-campus laboratory requirement, the school has state-of-the-art facilities that give students a taste of what it’s like to work in the field. Beyond the guidance offered by instructors, students are assigned a program advisor who can give them information about transferring to a bachelor’s degree program, as well as career opportunities they can pursue.
This online physical therapy assistant associate degree program does require students to spend about 9-16 days on campus to complete the laboratory requirement. In order to be admitted into the program, students must complete their high school diploma with a 2.75 grade point average or better. They should also have taken courses in subjects such as psychology, biology, math and communication.
A Transitional Doctor of Physical Therapy program from Northeastern University serves online students. This program can be especially useful for students who wish to focus on pharmacology, medical screening, nutrition or diagnostic imaging. The university reports that students gain a deep understanding of the field through coursework. Students are required to draft a publishable report about clinical decision-making and the patient-client relationship in order to further demonstrate their skills.
Web-based instruction blends with a clinical practicum in an online program that awards a post-professional DPT credential. Utica College designed this comprehensive program for licensed practitioners interested in working in a direct-access health care environment. Building on the knowledge and skills students already have, this program expands their familiarity with topics such as pharmacology, diagnostic imaging, prevention, wellness and global health issues. Students have access to online tools that can help augment the work they’re doing in their classes.
Earning an online degree in physical therapy is just the beginning: Graduates must find a way to market their expertise in order to land a job, or, if they are interested in starting their own practice, finding clients to work with them. The following tips can help graduates highlight the expertise they gained while earning their degree.