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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 commonplace within this system to see a physiatrist or other specialist first, legislation is now on the side of allowing physical therapists that work with the VA to practice in a similar manner to PTs serving in the military.

As with non-federal opportunites, 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 (unless you are in inpatient then it’s more typically 15-60 minute intervals that are more common in acute care settings).

This, combined with better patient-therapist ratios and having greater access to assistive devices other tools, helps PTs to meet the needs of our nation’s finest and provides for an excellent patient experience. If you believe that the veteran in front of you would benefit from a cane, knee brace, or TENs unit, all you need to do is put in an order and you can typically issue the device that same session!

The ability to service your patient is second to none in working with Veterans Affairs. While there are sometimes difficulties (which will happen in any hospital system), as long as you have the veteran’s best interest in mind you are typically clear to treat in any way you deem appropriate.

My experience with the VA

My decision to seek employment with the Veterans Affairs stems from my background as a military brat. Growing up we were constantly moving around while my dad served his 20 years in the United States Coast Guard. After his retirement, my dad felt the need to work with and for his fellow veterans and found employment at our local VA hospital.

During my undergraduate studies, I had the opportunity to work in the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services department and bounce between various disciplines. Over a two and a half year span, I had the chance to work alongside physical therapists, occupational therapists, audiologists, physiatrists, and even our chiropractor.

Being exposed to these disciplines put me on my path to physical therapy. Watching a therapist work in outpatient orthopedics on Tuesday and Thursday and then bounce between inpatient rehabilitation and wound care Monday, Wednesday, and Friday fascinated me! Being able to see not only what a physical therapist was able to do in terms of exercise, and in an evaluation had me hooked.

Interested in hearing another perspective on working with the military? Check out our interview with Military PT, DPT Jeff Turner, an active-duty officer and therapist!

How do you become a federal physical therapist?

I was rather lucky to be hired straight out of school; typically new graduates are not hired by the VA unless they have previously served in some branch of the military. I was able to do this by applying 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. The program once focused on nursing related fields, but it was recently expanded to being physical therapy students.

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. While there are VA hospitals and clinics across the country, the likelihood that the one in your area or even your state will be hiring immediately after graduation is rather slim.

Even with the scholarship, my choices after graduating from physical therapy school in Chicago were two placements in Texas, one in Kansas, one in Alabama, and one in Vermont. If you are a person who is not willing to move for a job opportunity, then you may already be handcuffed.

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 school or even undergrad, try to volunteer at a VA hospital near you. My journey in the VA started during my senior year of high school as I volunteered to transport patients and prepare events for the veterans. Making friends and connections within the VA system is key to an eventual career as a federal physical therapist.
  2. Similarly, 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). As with many jobs, your network is key!
  3. Join the Federal Section of the APTA. This is another way to network, not only as a student with interest in the system but also as a clinician. The federal section is one of the cheaper sections to join within the APTA and offers a lot of value! In 2017, during CSM, the Federal Section set up an exclusive tour of the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston in Austin, TX for its members. On top of this experience, 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

If you build a network and get to the interview portion of the hiring process know that you are likely not alone. In my time with the VA I have seen as many as 20 people being interviewed for one or two positions. While each hospital has their own set of interview questions and on-boarding processes, you can expect to have questions asked about your journey and how your skill set 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

While it may seem insurmountable at times, 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.

Even though I am still very green in my career as a physical therapist, I am incredibly thankful to have the opportunity to work with our nation’s veteran population. The whole reason one gets into the VA system should be 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.

While I am sure most physical therapists feel validated by their work, I invite you to shadow at a VA clinic near you or offer your services to the next veterans 5K in your town; listen to the stories these brave men and women have to tell. As physical therapists, we have the opportunity to get to know our patients and continue to educate them through their recovery process. By working for the VA you can do all of this for a population that has sacrificed so that strangers can continue to live their lives and chase their dreams.


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