Physical therapy jobs are similar to many other medical careers in that practitioners can work in either inpatient or outpatient settings. An inpatient setting would involve providing physical therapy at a hospital, nursing home, or assisted-living facility. Physical therapy in an outpatient setting would mean working at a private clinic – as an employed PT, the practice owner, or perhaps a locum tenens therapist.
Both employment options are equally valid. The point of this post is to highlight outpatient work and some of the reasons physical therapists prefer it. Some love outpatient work so much that they would never work any other way. Others start in the outpatient environment before transitioning to inpatient work.
1. Outpatient Allows Greater Autonomy
It is generally accepted that outpatient therapists enjoy greater autonomy because patients are coming on their own rather than receiving physical therapy after having already been admitted to a hospital or nursing facility. In other words, patients visiting an outpatient clinic – even if they are referred by a doctor – are seeking treatment in a one-on-one situation. This gives the therapist an opportunity to treat the patient in whatever way he or she sees fit.
It should be noted that growing numbers of states are giving physical therapists the authority to see patients without referrals. As such, therapists are now finding themselves in the position of being solely responsible for diagnosis when non-referred patients come in. This further increases autonomy.
2. Outpatient Allows More Immediate Results
Although outpatient physical therapy does not guarantee immediate results, the nature of outpatient care does tend toward that. Outpatient therapists are not working with accident victims still recovering from many other injuries, for example. They tend to work with people whose only major issue is the one requiring physical therapy. That makes for more immediate results in most cases.
It is not unheard of for a PT to increase a patient’s range of motion in a stiff neck or sore arm by as much as 20% – just in the first visit. It is not unusual for therapists to teach patients new ways of doing things that they can put to use the minute they leave the office.
3. Outpatient Allows More Creativity
It is rather interesting to observe that most of the skills physical therapist learned while in training are skills best put to use in the outpatient setting. So imagine completing your training and immediately heading to an inpatient environment. Some of the skills you learned will be applicable, others will not be. Furthermore, an inpatient environment is more restrictive in terms of your creativity.
Outpatient work allows for more creativity because the therapist’s autonomy is greater. The outpatient therapist doesn’t have to rely on a core set of basic exercises and tests to treat what may be very complex issues. Instead, the door remains wide open to all sorts of creative therapies.
On a related note, a therapist who only works in an inpatient environment may lose some of the skills learned in training. That is not necessarily good or bad. An entire career spent doing inpatient work would dictate that those lost skills are not really necessary. Yet the therapist who wants to maintain the sharpest possible skillset would do better in an outpatient setting.
Thank goodness that both inpatient and outpatient opportunities exist. Therapists need multiple opportunities for work, and patients need access to as much care as they can find. Having both is a good thing. If you are just getting started in physical therapy, which one sounds better to you? Are you more likely to pursue inpatient or outpatient work?