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Everything you need to know about how to become a traveling physical therapist

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Physical and mental burnout is a real occupational hazard in the physical therapy clinic. Instead of settling into a rhythm and feeling comfortable with your routine, you may notice you’re feeling disengaged or “checked out.” In addition to dissatisfaction with your career, burnout can lead to mental health issues, worse physical health and workplace conflicts.

So how can you stay on your toes and reinvigorate your professional life? Going for board certification or a fellowship to gain skills in a specialty area is one way to do it. But you may not have the time or the money to invest right now, and that’s OK. You may have heard that taking short-term travel assignments can take you to new places and open up new experiences. It can also provide enough of a challenge to keep you engaged and satisfied with your career.

Being a travel PT isn’t for everyone. But if you’re looking for a challenge, it can be a great way to get a taste of different specialties, learn to adapt to different company cultures, and round out your skills to make you a better clinician. If you missed our beginner’s guide to travel physical therapy, you might want to read that article first. 

This article goes a bit deeper to explain how traveling for short-term assignments can help you rekindle your passion for physical therapy.

How will being a travel physical therapist benefit my career?

Travel physical therapists are in demand because they fill gaps where full-time clinical positions are hard to fill. You may be covering for PTs who are on long-term disability or maternity or paternity leave. You might spend some time in rural areas where there aren’t enough PTs to meet the demand. Or you might help care for patients during busy times of year. Each short-term position will come with its own nuances and challenges. If you’re comfortable jumping in and going with the flow, you’ll gain valuable experience that will set you apart in the future. 

After working in a few different settings, you’ll have a wealth of practical experience with things like electronic medical record (EMR) systems and care coordination strategies. You’ll have a good sense of what’s most important in an outpatient clinic, a hospital, a skilled nursing facility or other health care settings. And insights from working in each of these settings will make you a valuable team player no matter where you go. Traveling positions are a great way to build up applied knowledge without going back to school or committing to a fellowship.

Unpredictability is a constant with travel physical therapy positions. However, it can be very rewarding to know you’re doing high-impact work. Many travel PTs find that the novelty of building new relationships in each location helps them keep burnout at bay. You can accumulate quite a large network of people in different states — and a reputation as a supportive teammate who showed up to help in a pinch. And since most temporary jobs only last about 13 weeks, you won’t have to stay long enough to get invested in workplace controversies.

What are some challenges of becoming a travel PT?

We’ve already mentioned how unpredictable the travel physical therapy lifestyle can be. Contracts do sometimes get canceled last minute, so it’s important to add a two- to four-week notice for cancellations to your contract. Understanding your total compensation with these types of contracts can be tricky. Consider the cost of your housing, health insurance and time off between positions. And remember that recruiters are salespeople of a sort. Exercise your best judgment and take your time to check out promises that seem too good to be true. If you can get referrals from other travel PTs, even better.

You won’t get exactly the same benefits as you would in a clinical position, but with most things, you can make travel contracts work in your favor. For example, you won’t get “paid time off” within your contracts. But with a higher rate of pay and short-term assignments, you can potentially get more time off than you would otherwise. It just takes a bit of planning and saving. Finding short-term housing can be tough, and gaps in health insurance can be an issue for traveling physical therapists. We’ll share some helpful hints on troubleshooting these issues in the “top tips” section.

How can I prepare for a job as a travel PT?

We covered some of this in our travel physical therapy 101 article. You’ll want to understand taxes, tax homes, licensing requirements, important sections to have in your contract, and what you can expect to make in various settings and locations. All of this will help you negotiate better terms and protect yourself from getting stuck in situations you weren’t prepared for. Also, it can be very helpful to keep an eye on what’s happening in the travel industry. 

You probably know that each state has its own laws and requirements for physical therapy licensure. But did you know that there’s now a compact licensure option? It’s well worth your time to look into this and see if it will make your travel PT career easier. But be aware that it may not apply in all situations. If you’ll mostly be working in participating states, you start by getting licensed in your home state and purchasing the PT compact privilege. From there, you’ll take the jurisprudence exam (if it’s required) for each additional state, and you can start practicing once you pass.

Top tips for travel PTs

We’ve covered a lot of information already. However, many of these details will vary depending on where your home base is, where you want to practice, and what’s happening in the industry and the economy. 

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you begin your research and start talking with other travel PTs:

  • While you can set up your own contracts as an independent contractor, it may not be worth the hassle and the risk right away. Find some experienced travel physical therapists to talk to and ask to see some examples of their past contracts. Ask them if they’ve ever been “surprised” with terms that didn’t seem like an issue upfront. And ask about the two to three most important things to look for in each contract.
  • Oftentimes, opting for higher pay as opposed to employer-provided housing will result in higher overall compensation and some consistency you can rely on. Finding these things on your own takes some legwork. But there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find housing that suits your lifestyle for less than your total housing stipend (e.g., renting a furnished apartment or traveling in an RV). You’ll have a few extra dollars to use for travel excursions or virtually anything else. 
  • The same is true for health insurance. Because these contracts are so short, going with employer-provided health care can leave you with significant coverage gaps. For your own continuity of care and peace of mind, finding your own coverage is usually best.
  • When it comes to travel assignments, you don’t have to go it alone. Consider partnering with another travel physical therapist to minimize the amount of research to do, share some of the planning responsibilities, save a ton on housing, get some extra eyes on your contracts and share information. 
  • Many parts of your contract are negotiable, but some are not. Get a good understanding of what employers will negotiate on and outline your top priorities. For instance, most contracts are about 13 weeks long, but some are much shorter. This is something many companies are flexible about, and many times, you have the opportunity to extend contracts once you’ve started. Sometimes employers will incentivize you to extend a contract by offering a pay increase.
  • Travel contracts within the United States are pretty simple, but working internationally gets a lot more complicated. There aren’t as many opportunities abroad as you would think, and they may not pay as well as jobs in the U.S. You may run into barriers like work visas, confusing degree equivalencies and language requirements. If you want to travel abroad, it may be best to save up and use your time between contracts to take vacations. 
  • Your travel lifestyle and your reasons for taking certain positions are completely up to you. You can take a scattered approach and travel somewhere new for every contract. Or you can focus on a couple of states to cultivate a rich network in those areas and feel at home without being tied down. Some stay close to family for most of the year and live in warmer climates during the winter. Others plan on traveling for a few years and settling down once they find a location they really like. The possibilities really are endless!

Alliance PTP is eager to support you as you prepare for a rich career as a travel physical therapist

Need a partner to help you address challenges like branching out into travel assignments? Alliance Physical Therapy Partners’ nationwide partnership in care is here for you.

We’ll help you get the support you need as a newly graduated physical therapist, a physical therapy assistant, or a seasoned PT looking for a new challenge. Even better, you’ll get full access to our employee support services while still maintaining full control over how you’re working to improve your skills. 

Find out if our Alliance PTP partnership has a career opening for you today.

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