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What You Need to Know About Becoming a Veterans Affairs PT

by Trace McClintock


With the APTA and the Veterans Affairs (VA) officially announcing their partnership in December of 2018, now is as good a time as any to consider the potential career avenues of a federal physical therapist.

What is the VA?

The Department of Veterans Affairs is a collection of hospitals, clinics, and supporting infrastructure whose mission statement is: "To fulfill President Lincoln's promise 'To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan' by serving and honoring the men and women who are America's Veterans." Within this setting, all veterans are able to receive care for service-connected and non-service-connected conditions.

What can a PT do with the VA?

Veterans now have the opportunity to reach out to their physical medicine and rehabilitation department without the need for a referral from their primary care doctors, thanks to recent legislation that approved direct access throughout the VA system. While it is still common to see a physiatrist first, legislation is allowing physical therapists that work with the VA to practice in a similar manner to PTs serving in the military.

As with non-federal opportunities, the opportunities for you to work across the spectrum of care are nearly unlimited. Depending on whether you’re in an urban hospital, a community-based outpatient clinic (CBOC), or in a rural community, you can work anywhere from in the intensive care unit to an outpatient clinic.

Putting vets first

One of the key aspects of being a physical therapist for the VA is putting the veterans first. What this means is more one-on-one time spent with your patients and less focus on billing units. As a physical therapist with the VA, you are typically allotted a full for hour evaluations and thirty to forty-five minutes for treatments. 

This, combined with better patient-therapist ratios and greater access to assistive tools, helps PTs to meet the needs of our nation’s finest and provides for an excellent patient experience. 

How do you become a federal physical therapist?

Typically, new graduates are not hired by the VA unless they have previously served in some branch of the military. If interested, you can apply for the Health Professionals Scholarship Program (HPSP), which offers to pay the tuition for your remaining time in school for an agreed term of service after graduation. 

If your aspirations are to pursue a career with the Veterans Affairs System right out of school and you do not have prior service, your best (and maybe only option) is to be selected as a recipient for the HPSP scholarship. The barrier to entry for a new graduate physical therapist is rather high due to the competitive nature of the application process. Just remember, you may need to relocate if a job offer lands in your lap!

What can you do to increase your chances of getting hired on at a VA hospital?

  1. If you are reading this while in PT or undergrad school, volunteer at a VA hospital near you. Making friends and connections within the VA system is key to an eventual career as a federal physical therapist.
  2. If you’re already a practicing physical therapist, your best chance may come from getting to know someone in the system. The VA does copious amounts of research and is nearly always present at local events where veterans are involved (e.g. Wounded Warrior events, 5Ks, Federal holiday parades/gatherings).
  3. Join the Federal Section of the APTA. The federal section is one of the cheaper sections to join within the APTA and offers a lot of value! The federal section gives you access to articles and has meetings during the national conference for even more networking and development opportunities!

What else you should know

Remember, competition is tough, and you shouldn't be surprised if you are one of 20 candidates applying for the same position. While each hospital has their own set of interview questions and on-boarding processes, expect to have questions asked about your journey and how your skillset has equipped you to provide the best care for our nation’s veterans.

Once someone is in, it’s not unheard of for physical therapists in the VA system to stay for 15, 20, 30, or even 40 years before retiring, and you do not typically see the same rates of turnover or burnout as you do in “mill” clinics or “starter” jobs. While this is great for those in the system, it also creates another barrier to entry for new graduates.

Are you still trying to figure out where you want to work after PT school? Check out our simple guide to jobs after physical therapy school!

Last bits

If you are one of the lucky ones and have the opportunity to work alongside our veterans, you will be exposed to a completely different type of clientele. While there are veterans who are coming in postoperatively or with “normal” aches and pain, the vast majority of our veterans seeking treatment have other comorbidities from their time in the service.

Remember, your job in the VA is to serve those who served our country. Thanks to their sacrifice, we have been given the opportunity to pursue our careers in medicine, and now we can give back through our care.

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