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Physical therapists in high demand

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — High demand for physical therapists and their assistants is creating a  bright spot in the state’s employment outlook, according to the Department of Workforce Solutions.

Both careers involve helping patients develop, maintain and restore their movement and function. Under state law, physical therapists diagnose patients and develop therapeutic programs; assistants provide support for these activities. Employment projections show that physical therapists in New Mexico are likely to see “exceptional growth” in their occupation through 2024, as are physical therapy assistants. Currently, there are about 1,300 physical therapists here and 390 assistants; that number is projected to increase to 1,645 and 490 respectively, according to the department.

Donald Sanchez, a physical therapist and the owner of Paradigm Physical Therapy and Wellness, said that the demand in New Mexico and elsewhere is being driven by demographics. He recently opened a new facility in the South Valley of Albuquerque; his practice also has a footprint in Belen, Bernalillo, Los Lunas.

“The population is such that there are a lot of baby boomers, so people need a lot of care,” Sanchez. “Across all our practices, we probably see about 600 to 700 patients a week, and that’s growing.”

The average starting salary for physical therapists in New Mexico is $61,020 according to Workforce Solutions.

The position requires a doctorate that takes about three-and-a-half years to obtain after getting a bachelor’s degree, he said.

Physical therapy assistants require less training to become certified. Most programs take about two years to obtain an associate degree. In New Mexico, Central New Mexico Community College, San Juan College, Clovis Community College and Pima Medical Institute offer accredited programs.

Those programs are becoming increasingly popular among students here, according to Karen Browning, a physical therapist and the director of the physical therapy assistant program at CNM. CNM’s program is the newest fully-accredited program in the state, and Browning said all 10 graduates from the most recent cohort passed their board examinations.

“I’m fielding about 20 emails a day from prospective students at this point,” said Browning. “The profession has such high job satisfaction, and students can spend $6,000 here and start earning around $45,000 a year at the beginning of their career.”

Whether or not the industry will be able to maintain those high levels of job satisfaction is another question. According to an industry report by investment advisors Capstone Partners, the $30 billion national physical therapy industry is in the midst of an “aggressive consolidation trend.” Sanchez said that has led to increased competition, with some organizations shifting their focus away from patient outcomes and toward tighter margins.

But both Sanchez and Browning said the profession is a great one for individuals who want to help others and are interested in participating in an industry likely to see extensive growth over the coming decade.

“PTs like being PTs,” said Browning.

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