Physical Therapy Assistants In Demand

April 02, 1995|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Sun Staff Writer

A career in physical therapy appealed to John Hall, a former Baltimore police officer. His choices were to spend six years in college to be a therapist, or two years to be an assistant.

"I looked at the whole picture -- two years vs. six years," Mr. Hall said. He's married, with two children. He chose the faster route.

But until this year, it wasn't necessarily faster. So few schools offered a program for physical therapist assistants that applicants had to spend up to two years on a waiting list.

The incentive is almost guaranteed employment for those who finish, and attractive starting salaries that range from $23,000 to as high as $35,000 for one of the fastest-growing professions in ++ the country, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Mr. Hall is enrolled in a program at Carroll Community College, one of three Maryland community colleges that started offering the course of study this fall.

Meanwhile, hospitals, nursing homes, private practices and schools are filling trade journals and newspapers with employment ads for therapists and assistants.

"We would put an ad in the paper and see who shows up, if anyone," said Tom Nichols, a physical therapist and director of rehabilitation at Northwest Hospital Center in Randallstown.

"At this hospital, when we have a new position, we try to fill it with an assistant, to save money," Mr. Nichols said. But if they can't get an assistant, he said, they hire another therapist -- if they can find one.

Until September, Baltimore City Community College was the only school in the state to offer the physical therapist assistant program. Some students commute from as far as the Eastern Shore, said Jane Cox, an instructor and clinical coordinator. Other students attended Northern Virginia Community College or a few schools in Pennsylvania.

In addition to Carroll Community College, other schools that started programs are community colleges in Montgomery and Allegany counties.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission is considering another joint program proposed by Chesapeake College, Anne Arundel Community College and Charles County Community College.

"The argument is there is a great need for these graduates," said Jeff Welsh, spokesman for the commission.

Baltimore has been offering the program for 25 years. The first graduating class was four students, Ms. Cox said. Now, the numbers of graduates annually is in the mid-20s, although 45 students start every year.

The new programs had enough students to open at capacity, though the programs vary in size. Carroll has 20 students enrolled in its first year, Allegany has 15 and Montgomery has 18 at the Takoma Park campus.

The students in the new programs will graduate in the spring of 1997 with an associate's degree in applied science. Except at Allegany Community College, students spend two years combining general courses such as English, technical courses such as anatomy and physiology, and clinical lab work in which they practice on each other. The last year also includes an internship, in which they work in a hospital or clinic under a therapist.

At Allegany, the program is what director Neil Nelson called a "1-plus-1" program. Students spend the first year on general education courses, and the second on technical courses, clinical work and internship.

This helps nontraditional students complete the first year's general courses over a few years, Mr. Nelson said. And longer-distance commuters, such as students as from Garrett County, can complete the first year closer to home.

Although the demand for the course has been high, Ms. Cox said, BCCC has not expanded it because of the cost in adding equipment and staff. Attracting instructors is also a challenge, she said, because physical therapists can make more in clinical practice than they do teaching. Still, accreditation of the programs requires that instructors continue some amount of clinical practice.

In the larger picture, she said, "it can be good to have a waiting list," giving students time to consider their choice and to take supplemental courses they need.

The new programs will make access easier for students who would have trouble getting to Baltimore, she said. But Ms. Cox has another concern: whether all these students be able to find ** internship positions in area clinics.

"I actually had to go to Washington, D.C., this year to find places for our students," Ms. Cox said.

As for jobs, however, she doesn't see a problem.

"One hundred percent of our students here have job offers before they leave this program," she said.

hTC

Physical therapy is a second career for Mr. Hall, 35, who was a Baltimore police officer for eight years. After leaving the force and working in a variety of jobs, he found one as a physical therapy aide. He liked it enough to pursue the more advanced position of an assistant.

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