The United States is experiencing an ongoing physical therapist shortage. Though the physical therapist workforce is anticipated to grow 21% between 2020 and 2030, the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests as many as 49,100 positions must be filled to meet future demand.
Complications brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have only exacerbated the shortage of physical therapists, making it increasingly difficult for clinicians to acquire enough staff to maintain current operations — let alone support continued growth to meet future demand. The situation is even direr in rural areas, where shortages have created limited access to quality patient care.
While the U.S Congress has begun addressing this concern by introducing programs like the Physical Therapist Workforce and Patient Access Act, these efforts influence the long-term demand, not the current state of physical therapy services. Keep reading to better understand the source of the ongoing physical therapist shortage and learn strategies to mitigate this issue.
To understand the ongoing physical therapist shortage in the United States, you must account for the multiple factors that impact the industry. The COVID-19 pandemic has plagued the healthcare industry for well over two years, inducing overwhelming stress and fear for all healthcare providers, not just members of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).
From long hours to continuous regulatory changes, healthcare professional shortages have resulted from employee burnout, which has pushed many medical professionals to either quit or not seek full-time positions. Likewise, fear of acquiring or spreading infections has created a new sense of fear throughout the industry, impacting therapists in outpatient and acute settings.
Beyond current COVID-19 implications, the physical therapist shortage initially began because physical therapist demand outweighs the professional supply. Factors including an increase in insured patients due to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and a rise in Medicare patients due to the aging of older generations have created a need for physical therapists that’s been challenging to fill.
While there may have been 239,200 physical therapy professionals already practicing in 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has predicted high demand for physical therapists in the following years. The current job outlook for physical therapy involves a 21% occupational growth rate, with upwards of 49,000 physical therapist positions needing filling by 2030.
With the average occupational growth rate of just 8%, the demand for physical therapists and physical therapist assistants is far beyond the average rate. But why? As with many areas of the healthcare industry, the general increase in patient interest in personal health and wellness brought on by the pandemic has driven up the need for high-quality physical therapy services.
Patients are more eager to live their healthiest lives possible, from treating chronic diseases and disabilities to enhancing overall personal well-being, especially after many spent the past two years leading a sedentary lifestyle. Similarly, a higher interest in sports medicine and non-medicated physical treatment methods has fueled a surge of physical therapist demand.
Lastly, changing age demographics across the United States have created a massive impact on physical therapy demand. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of U.S residents over the age of 55 grew by 27%, and those over the age of 65 have nearly doubled. With many physical therapy patients belonging to these age demographics and more beginning to file for Medicare, it’s clear why the physical therapist demand continues to skyrocket.
Therapists are integral to a physical therapy practice: there is no business without a staff. To better address the ongoing physical therapist shortage concerns throughout the industry, there are best practices and initiatives surrounding this issue you may want to implement in your clinic.
As part of the healthcare workforce, it’s essential to continue navigating COVID-19 related physical therapy shortages with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CDC contingency capacity strategies recommend that physical therapy clinics implement scheduling and position rotation practices to mitigate the staffing shortage concern. These practices can include canceling non-essential visits and rotating staff schedules to ensure critical patients meet with a therapist without overworking employees.
If you continue to encounter physical therapy staffing concerns, it’s essential to look into your alternative options. For example, hiring an individual contract physical therapist is a great way to combat staffing issues temporarily, as contracted employees typically offer more flexibility and help patients get seen quicker. However, it’s important to note that contracted professionals often provide a temporary fix and commonly request increased wages.
A more long-term fix may come in the form of a potential new pool of physical therapists, as recent efforts from Congress can potentially entice professionals to participate in the National Health Service Corps student loan repayment program. Healthcare providers who commit to serving in a designated healthcare professional shortage area, such as physical therapy, are eligible for student loan relief through the program.
While various industry-based factors influence the physical therapy workforce, individual social factors are often responsible for employee attrition or small team size at a clinic level. Burnout has become a primary concern among many in the healthcare field, with reports on the rise of therapists working extreme hours or under stressful conditions.
Not to mention, several policies put in place during the pandemic — such as adjustments to in-person learning — have left many therapists in need of childcare during work hours. When combined with a lack of transportation prominent among rural areas or areas stricken by inflated transportation prices, clinicians must evaluate the social factors that may impact their workforce.
For instance, if your team of physical therapists is all parents with limited access to reliable childcare, consider offering employee incentives that could cover childcare costs. This could include offering weekly stipends to employees that cover a portion or all necessary childcare costs or reaching out to local child care services to see if an employee discount program can be arranged.
When your clinic faces staff shortages, the last thing you want to do is waste time with manual data entry or patient documentation. Rather than rely on manual methods for reimbursement or updating patient medical records, automate your processes with trusted physical therapy technology that ranges from telehealth platforms to practice management software.
With all-in-one web-based physical therapy software, physical therapists can maximize their staff with patient portal capabilities that significantly reduce front desk work via online patient registration and scheduling features. Likewise, physical therapy software offers EMR solutions that provide fast documentation, customizable templates and forms, and compliance warning tools to help your current team avoid operational delays.
As you continue to navigate the ongoing challenges of physical therapist shortages, the last thing you need is time-consuming tasks eating away time from your patients and practice. MWTherapy’s web-based physical therapy software automates countless tasks across patient onboarding and EMR management from one easy-to-use platform. Book a demo today to learn more about what MWTherapy can do for your physical therapy business.