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It's the $110,000 job that keeps going unfilled — and the hiring gap is hurting Minnesotans who need help to heal from medical crises.

A nationwide shortage of physical therapists is now holding back the recovery of seniors and injured people in our state. For Minnesotans, the result is long wait times — or frustrating searches for any available help — if you need a physical therapist to get you moving again after surgery, a stroke or debilitating pain.

Across the U.S., clinics report a 10% vacancy rate for physical therapist (PT) jobs, according to the most recent employer survey by the American Physical Therapy Association. Here in Minnesota, economists list physical therapy as one of the highest demand professions in the state, with 13.8% annual growth expected over the coming decade, or about 600 new jobs per year.

At our complete senior health company, with headquarters in St. Louis Park, we have 18 physical therapists on staff, but we have been trying for months to find and hire 10 more. That's a 35% job vacancy rate. If we could fill those 10 physical therapist jobs, we could expand health care services to serve another 4,000 seniors who need rehabilitation in their homes in the coming year.

Unsung heroes of the complete senior health team, PTs play a critical role after acute events like stroke or a bone-breaking fall — they work to strengthen the body to restore the ability to walk, dress, cook and live on their own. For seniors with chronic illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, PTs work to get people moving again — the ultimate goal is regaining as much independence as possible.

As a geriatric doctor who has worked across clinical settings, I am especially grateful for the impactful results won by physical therapists in the homes of our seniors. Many times clients will put on brave faces when they travel to see their doctor in an office, but in the comfort and safety of their own home environments they are much more likely to speak freely and discuss, warts and all, their true health situations. A physical therapist can build personal rapport and have a meaningful relationship in a person's home that would never happen in a sterile clinic.

The greater the personal connection, especially at home, the more likely the person will embrace what the medical professional is recommending. Physical therapy and improved movement often are more powerful than any medicine I can prescribe to a senior.

At home, a physical therapist also can be tuned into a client's true social determinants of health. Is the senior safe at home, with ample food, clean surroundings and a supportive community? Often, these determinants, which are difficult for a doctor to evaluate in a medical office, can be easily spotted by a physical therapist visiting at home, and they can make a vast difference to a person's recovery, decreasing the likelihood they'll end up back in the hospital or ER.

Unfortunately, the great importance of physical therapy work comes with a big drawback: It has been a high burnout job. More than 15,000 physical therapists — or about 1 of 10 professionals nationwide — left the occupation during the COVID lockdown, the largest percentage of the workforce lost when compared with physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and licensed clinical social workers.

Too many physical therapists leave the profession because they are overworked. Health care needs more of them. Minnesota has only 5,500 registered physical therapists. That's not enough to meet existing needs of our state's 5.7 million people, let alone the ability to serve a rapidly growing senior population.

The current and forecasted shortage of physical therapists comes despite job pay that is more than double the median individual income in Minnesota.

It's also one of the most personally rewarding professions in the medical business.

Few job assignments reap the feeling of personal accomplishment that results when PTs get struggling people back on their feet again. Sometimes they work with elite athletes like former Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins to push the limits of what humans can achieve in strength and speed. More typically, though, they work with recovering people who are trying to regain the basic ability to move from the bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen. Either way, physical therapists are transforming lives in positive ways.

There are several ways to ease the physical therapist crunch.

One key is to reduce the time and cost of training. Physical therapy typically requires three years of additional schooling after receiving a four-year undergraduate degree. Policymakers should consider either streamlining some educational requirements or encouraging different levels of physical therapy certification along the lines of nursing, which allows students to become a certified nursing assistant, LPN, RN, BSN, MSN or APRN.

Another factor driving away physical therapists is student loan debt. Schooling costs too much, and saddles too many PTs with high monthly payments years after their education is complete. One of the clearest ways to attract more students to physical therapy — and to keep existing PTs in the profession — is to reduce the price of certification, or the loans that are required to achieve it.

Physical therapy is one of those professions where one person can make a big difference. To help Minnesota seniors heal, we need to find, encourage and promote more physical therapists.

Dr. Nick Schneeman is a geriatrician and chief medical officer of Lifespark, a Minnesota-based complete senior health company.