YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Health Horizons : Physical Therapists Getting a Real Workout : As the U.S. population is living longer, jobs in the field are booming--and the supply can't keep up with the demand.


This spring, Delores, 39, who lives in Tarzana and had been out of work for six years, decided she needed a job, and fast. Her husband was laid off suddenly from his electrician's job, they had a child attending a $6,000-a-year private school, and they had plenty of earthquake repair bills to pay.

In one day, she landed a job that pays $45 an hour: as a licensed physical therapist at a nursing home, where she rehabilitates patients with hip fractures and strokes. Even though she hadn't been in the work force this decade, Delores remained in demand because physical therapy jobs often outnumber qualified applicants in this booming field.

"The reason for the boom is more people are getting older and living longer," said Delores, who didn't want her last name used. And cost-conscious HMOs want their patients out of hospitals or rehabilitation centers as soon as possible. To manage that, Delores said, "you have to at least be able to get out and walk."

This year, 37.3 million people, or 14.2% of the U.S. population, will be 65 or older, according to census data, compared to 20 million people and 9.8% of the population in 1970. As the baby boomers gray, those figures will keep rising.

As a result, the Labor Department predicts a shortage of physical therapists through 2005, even though the number of people with the licenses has jumped nationally to 85,000 from 71,000 in 1987. But demand keeps outpacing supply, according to the American Physical Therapy Assn. in Alexandria, Va., which accredits physical therapy schools.

"I don't know of any physical therapists sitting around and watching soap operas," said Alexis Waters, director of publicity for the association. Waters says the average starting pay for physical therapists is between $32,000 and $35,000 a year.

Another reason behind the boom is the shift in the past 20 years to more health-minded exercise programs. Whether it's jogging, roller-blading, sky-planing or skiing, weekend warriors are more likely to suffer injuries and need physical therapy to get back in the game.

Bonnie Cardenas, who runs a physical therapy company in Studio City, has seen her profession evolve. When she started out 21 years ago in a hospital, most of her patients suffered from neurological problems and strokes. Now almost all of her work is with outpatients suffering neck, shoulder, knee and other orthopedic problems.

Cardenas sometimes has trouble finding someone to hire: "There seem to be more positions for physical therapists than there are physical therapists to fill it."

This demand has been noticed by students trying to pick a career. Jennifer Haas, 23, who works as a physical therapy aide for Cardenas, wants her share of this growth industry. For her, the problem isn't finding a job, it's finding a spot in a school with an accredited physical therapy program.

Nationally, there are 137 accredited physical therapy programs, and most of them have more prospective students than they can handle. Cal State Northridge has two classes with a total of 80 students working toward earning their bachelor's degrees in physical therapy. "Whoever wants a job gets a job immediately upon graduation," said Donna Redman-Bentley, CSUN's director of physical therapy. Her graduates start out earning about $36,000 a year.

The industry does face some uncertainties, however, with the surge in HMOs and managed-care health insurance programs. The American Physical Therapy Assn. is studying how the overhaul in the medical care industry might affect its workers.

One possibility is that while physical therapy will be widely in demand in the future, therapists will have more work on a free-lance or contract basis rather than in salaried positions. And with Congress trying to tackle soaring Medicare costs, reimbursement rates for physical therapists could be cut. Cardenas has already seen a tightening of coverage by insurance companies.

Los Angeles Times Articles