All states require physical therapists to be licensed. This involves graduating from a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) and passing the National Physical Therapy Examination. DPT programs can be found partially online, and programs with an online component may require students to complete on-campus residencies.
After licensure, some physical therapists choose to become board-certified in one of the eight specialty areas, such as geriatric physical therapy, pediatrics or orthopedics, offered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. Certification involves attending seminars and possibly completing an additional residency program in the specialty area. Applicants must also have accumulated a certain number of clinical hours before they can sit for the exam. Test preparation and practice tests are available online for physical therapists.
Physical therapist assistants also require state testing or certification, and most states require that physical therapist assistants graduate from an accredited associate's degree program. In these programs, most coursework can be completed online, though students will need to complete lab courses on campus and get clinical experience at a local facility.
Students who are looking for a fully online program may consider an associate's degree in healthcare administration. These programs train students for work in healthcare institutions, such as physical therapy offices, but they don't require on-site clinical training or labs.
Online Physical Therapy Education Options
Due to the hands-on nature of the physical therapy profession, programs with online coursework typically also require some in-person clinical work. Both PTs and PTAs must have completed a requisite number of clinical hours at a facility to be able to work. Additionally, some of the few online, distance or flexible programs that exist may include some on-campus learning in the form of cohort seminars, getting feedback on hands-on skills learned online or working with patients in a clinic. Some classes are asynchronous, while in others, students and faculty must meet online at a designated time.
Associate's Degree in Physical Therapy Assisting
The online curriculum for a 2-year PTA associate's degree program includes prerequisite courses in areas like anatomy and physiology, along with some general education requirements. PT classes include kinesiology, pathophysiology, therapeutic exercise and rehabilitation. Students attend online classes and can take some of their exams at home in a proctored environment created by a webcam and microphone. Clinical work is done near the student's home.
Doctorate of Physical Therapy
The DPT program is generally four years long. It is an intensive science-based program that combines didactic coursework with a significant amount of clinical learning. Online students start off with introductory classes in anatomy, physiology and physical therapy. With clinical work added in, starting in the second year of the program, students progress to courses in the different types of PT, such as integumentary PT, cardiovascular PT and neuroanatomy.
A few institutions also offer transitional DPT programs online for master's-educated physical therapists. These programs consist of around 18-20 credits in courses such as pharmacology, pathophysiology, diagnostic imaging and global health care issues. Online students work closely together as a cohort. An on-campus residency is required.
Distance-learning physical therapy programs can be found for PTAs and PTs, though both of these programs involve some on-campus coursework and in-person clinical training; students seeking a fully online program could look into a healthcare administration program as an alternative. Certification for PTs also can't be earned online, though prep materials for the certification exam are offered online.