Physical Therapist Assistant Career Information
W e all want to experience a good quality of life. But accidents happen, we age, and medical issues can arise that challenge our well-being. We might find ourselves in need of help from professionals who specialize in restoring and promoting healthy physical movement. So, what is physical therapy?
Physical therapy is:
- The treatment of injuries and other health problems through the use of physical methods such as therapeutic exercises, deep massage, and electrical stimulation
- Used to help patients who have undergone surgery return to a normal level of physical function
- Often included in treatment plans aimed at preventing the loss of mobility or the need for surgery
- Used to treat patients with a wide variety of disabilities and medical conditions such as head injuries, arthritis, back pain, bone fractures, dislocations, burns, carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoporosis, and cerebral palsy
Physical therapists and physical therapist assistants perform physical therapy. Physical therapists evaluate patients, come up with plans for treatment, and frequently delegate the actual task of carrying out those treatments to qualified professionals under their supervision.
What is a Physical Therapist Assistant?
Physical therapists might call the shots, but they often rely on the hard work, dedication, and compassion of another type of physical therapy practitioner. So, what is a physical therapist assistant?
A physical therapist assistant (PTA) is:
- Someone who works directly with patients (under the supervision of a physical therapist) to reduce their pain, restore their functional movement, prevent disability, or promote their ability to move by carrying out prescribed treatment plans and techniques
- NOT the same thing as a physical therapist (PT)
- NOT the same thing as a physical therapy aide (PT aide) or technician
- Often mistakenly known as a "physical therapy assistant" even though the title that is preferred by those within the field (and is used by multiple state and national physical therapy organizations) is "physical therapist assistant"
What Does a Physical Therapy Assistant Do?
Asking, "What does a physical therapy assistant do?" is better phrased as "What does a physical therapist assistant do?" Correctly known as "physical therapist assistants," they often carry out the bulk of hands-on physical therapy treatments.
The work of a physical therapist assistant (PTA) can be quite varied. PTAs often treat several different patients—each requiring different treatments—during the course of a typical day. So, specifically, what does a physical therapist assistant do?
Depending on their work settings, physical therapist assistants (under supervision) interact directly with patients and perform treatments such as:
- Therapeutic physical exercises
- Deep soft-tissue massage
- Functional training (exercises for helping patients get back to performing their day-to-day activities)
- Mechanical traction (for treating neck or lower back pain)
- Balance and gait training (for helping patients re-learn how to stand and walk)
- Electrotherapy (using electrical stimulation to relieve pain, build strength, and promote healing)
- Therapeutic ultrasound (using sound waves to reduce pain or promote healing in muscles or joints)
Beyond carrying out the treatment plans designed by a physical therapist, a PTA's responsibilities can also include:
- Accurately documenting each patient's treatment and progress
- Making necessary modifications to a specific treatment to ensure a patient's safety, comfort, or positive outcome
- Providing emotional support to patients as well as their families and caregivers while being respectful of social and cultural differences
- Helping patients learn how to use or adapt to life with crutches, wheelchairs, prosthetics, orthotics, and other assistive devices
- Responding to a patient's emergency medical situation
- Assisting with administrative activities such as billing and coding, ordering supplies, and scheduling appointments
Where Can a Physical Therapist Assistant Work?
Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) enjoy an occupational field that is full of many possible work settings and arrangements. There are opportunities to work the regular 9 to 5, more flexible hours, or even on a short-term contract basis.
Employers that utilize PTAs include:
- Hospitals (for short-term, acute care and post-surgical rehabilitation of patients)
- Private outpatient clinics (working primarily with patients who have orthopedic or neuromuscular conditions)
- Skilled nursing facilities (treating mostly elderly patients in nursing homes or other long-term care or rehabilitation settings)
- Home health agencies (traveling to different patient residences or necessary locations to provide treatment)
- Schools (assisting children with disabilities)
- Sports and fitness centers (promoting healthy lifestyles and helping clients prevent or recover from injuries)
- Hospices (helping to provide the best quality of life possible for patients nearing death due to incurable disease)
- Research facilities (assisting in research aimed at growing the field's body of knowledge as well as improving patient outcomes)
What are the Pros and Cons of Being a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA)?
This is a healthcare career from which many people derive tremendous personal satisfaction. In fact, you probably won't find too many PTAs who dislike their chosen occupation. But like everything else in life, working as a physical therapist assistant can have drawbacks as well as benefits.
Here are a few of the downsides associated with being a PTA:
- The work requires a lot of kneeling, bending, and stooping, which can be physically taxing.
- Standing for long periods can mean going home with sore feet.
- Physical therapist assistants generally have limited authority to make decisions and little or no autonomy on the job since they must be supervised by a physical therapist.
- In work settings such as private physical therapy practices, PTAs often have to meet challenging levels of productivity in order to maximize their billable hours, which can be stressful.
- Working in an acute-care or in-patient environment can mean having to treat patients with infectious diseases and open wounds.
Of course, there are also many upsides to being a physical therapist assistant. Here are some of them:
- Due to the high demand for PTAs, along with an increasingly older population, there is no shortage of jobs.
- It provides the ability to make a truly positive difference in the lives of other people.
- The variety of possible work settings enables physical therapist assistants to have career mobility and make meaningful changes without having to change occupations.
- Meeting and getting to know all the people they help frequently gives PTAs a strong sense of fulfillment.
- Compared to nurses, physical therapist assistants typically report experiencing far less stress.
- Depending on the employer and work setting, a PTA can often choose to work flexible hours in order to accommodate family life.
- Unlike other hands-on careers in healthcare, physical therapist assistants aren't tasked with things like drawing blood or tending to patients' personal hygiene. Long (12-to-14-hour) shifts are also uncommon.
What is the Typical Salary for Physical Therapy Assistant Jobs?
The typical salary for physical therapy assistant jobs is one of the highest among careers that only require an associate degree. Physical therapy assistants, correctly known as "physical therapist assistants" (PTAs), generally earn good wages for the relatively short amount of time it takes to get an education in the field. In fact, most PTAs also work for employers that provide benefits such as vacation and health insurance. So, just how much does a career as a physical therapist assistant pay?
It all depends on a PTA's position, education, experience, geographic location, and work setting. But based on national estimates, typical annual wages for physical therapist assistants break down like this: *
- The bottom 10 percent earn $31,070 or less.
- Median wages (50th percentile) are $49,690.
- The top 10 percent earn $68,820 or more.
What are the Physical Therapy Assistant Requirements I Need to Know?
The physical therapy assistant requirements you need to know are fairly straightforward. The first thing you should understand, however, is that the proper way to refer to the occupation is "physical therapist assistant" (PTA). Beyond that, there are a number of very important points to keep in mind.
At minimum, you'll have to earn an associate degree in the field. Here are the other things you should know about the requirements for physical therapist assistant careers:
- Every state in the U.S., except Colorado and Hawaii, requires licensure or certification of PTAs.
- In order to be awarded a license or certificate to practice as a PTA, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). The NPTE is not an easy exam; about 25 percent of PTA students do not pass it on their first attempt.
- In order to qualify for the NPTE, you must first graduate from a physical therapy education program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Such programs are intensive and award two-year associate degrees.
- Other requirements vary from state to state, but you may have to pass a state exam in addition to the NPTE. You may also have to earn continuing education credits in order to maintain your PTA license or certificate.
Of course, there is more than the official stuff to think about. Successful physical therapist assistants generally share the following characteristics:
- A strong desire to help people in need
- The ability to listen and converse with others in a genuine and respectful way
- A moderate amount of physical strength and stamina
- Good organization
- Emotional stability
- The ability to keep track of details
Can You Tell Me How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant?
Although you want to know how to become a physical therapy assistant, what you really want to know is how to become a physical therapist assistant. The distinction is subtle, and it might sound funny, but "physical therapist assistant" is the preferred way to refer to this occupation.
There are no two ways about it: if you want to become a physical therapist assistant (PTA), then you will need to understand that post-secondary training is an essential part of the journey. It all starts with your schooling.
Here are some things to consider about the education you'll need in order to become a PTA:
- It is extremely important that you choose a CAPTE-accredited associate degree program. Failing to do so will mean that you won't be eligible to take the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) when you graduate, which would mean being unable to work as a PTA in any state other than Colorado or Hawaii.
- At many colleges, particularly the public ones, you will have to meet pre-admission course requirements before being accepted into a physical therapist assistant program. These can include courses in subjects such as anatomy and physiology, algebra, introductory psychology, and English. If you are just beginning your post-secondary schooling, this can mean spending a year or more just to earn your prerequisites (in addition to the two-year PTA program).
- Many PTA schools require that you accumulate a certain number of hours of observation, volunteer, or paid clinical experience in at least two different physical therapy settings before you can gain admittance to a program.
- You may have to pass a test of basic academic skills (math, reading, writing, science) prior to admission to a PTA program.
- Public colleges will be less expensive than private ones, but due to high student demand and limited PTA program openings, you might be placed on a long waiting list or into a lottery system that selects who will be admitted based on luck of the draw.
- Some PTA programs are highly selective in their admission policies. Such schools will look at your grade point average (GPA) from your previous college experience or from your high school transcript. They might also ask for recommendation letters from physical therapy facilities that you have volunteered or worked at.
- In an effort to select the best school for your needs, you might want to interview potential employers about the strengths and weaknesses of different PTA programs in your area based on their experiences with the graduates they've hired. Important factors to consider in choosing a school include the pass rates of previous graduates taking the NPTE and the quality of the instructors (what is their professional experience, and how long have they been teaching together?).
- Many students find it difficult or impossible to successfully complete a PTA program while holding down a job.
As you ponder whether you want to pursue a career as a physical therapist assistant, it is useful (and highly recommended) to visit a variety of physical therapy facilities. Contact nursing homes, outpatient clinics, and hospitals and indicate that you are a prospective PTA student. Ask them if you can observe or job shadow the physical therapist assistants working there, or volunteer to work as a physical therapy aide.
In fact, if you simply want to know how to become a physical therapy aide (PT aide), that is how you do it. Being a PT aide doesn't require any post-secondary schooling. Many places will be happy to accommodate you if they know that you are planning to pursue an education to become a PTA. In some cases, you might be asked to sign a confidentiality agreement and get it notarized first (in order to protect patients' privacy).
In addition, any skills in office management or medical billing and coding that you learn or accumulate can make you more employable once you start looking for work as a licensed PTA.
What is the Cost of a Physical Therapist Assistant Education?
The cost of a physical therapist assistant education varies significantly depending on the type of school you choose and where that school is located. Total costs for a physical therapist assistant (PTA) program can range from as little as $2,500 to as much as $35,000 or more.
If you qualify, most schools can help you get financial assistance in the form of loans or grants from the federal government. Many states also offer financial aid to older workers who need to retrain for a new career. And some professional organizations, such as the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), provide annual scholarships to outstanding PTA students who are also members.
What Does a Physical Therapy Assistant Education Involve?
While some schools may refer to it as a physical therapy assistant education, the professional bodies that govern the field prefer to use the term "physical therapist assistant" (PTA). The distinction is subtle, but knowing which title to use will serve you well after you graduate and need to find a job.
Physical therapist assistant schools that are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) must meet high standards. The curriculum is designed to help students become adaptable, knowledgeable, service-oriented, and competent in the field. As a result, many programs require students to earn a grade of C or higher in every course.
PTA students need to learn how to communicate effectively with different types of people and how to perform the duties of a physical therapist assistant with safety and ethics in mind. If you choose to pursue a PTA education, then you'll need to prepare to learn in the classroom as well as hands-on in different clinical settings. You will have to absorb a lot of information and put what you learn into practice.
CAPTE-accredited PTA programs typically include courses in subjects such as:
- Anatomy and physiology
- Exercise physiology
- Clinical pathology
- Behavioral sciences
The hands-on, practical portion of a PTA education usually lasts about 16 weeks (full time). It is an essential component that includes working in actual physical therapy treatment facilities as well as training in CPR and first aid.
What is the Job Outlook for Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs)?
Physical therapist assistants are in high demand, and that is expected to continue since they are part of one of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States. Employment of PTAs is expected to grow by 35 percent between 2008 and 2018. **
Increasing demand for physical therapy services from aging baby boomers is a big reason for the bright outlook. Other reasons include the fact that medical advances are helping more trauma victims and people born with defects and disabilities survive. Such patients frequently require ongoing physical therapy treatments.
The best prospects for employment (and best pay) as a physical therapist assistant will likely continue to be where the elderly get treated most. Opportunities will vary from region to region, but some of the best settings to look for a PTA job include:
- Rural areas
- Skilled nursing facilities and long-term care centers
- Home healthcare agencies
There is one big caveat, however, to this optimistic outlook. New healthcare legislation is changing the way physical therapy services are paid for by government and private insurers. As a result, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is considering policy changes that could have a significant impact on the education and careers of physical therapist assistants.
As of July 2012, PTAs could find themselves with new educational requirements and, potentially, redefined roles. One of the major changes that the APTA is considering would allow other types of workers to perform some of the same duties that currently are allowed only of PTAs under the supervision of a physical therapist. (While it is the states that set the physical therapy regulations, they often take their cues from the APTA and pass legislation to match its recommendations.)
Can a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) Become a Physical Therapist (PT)?
Yes, with the right education, a physical therapist assistant can become a physical therapist. However, being a PTA is NOT typically a steppingstone to becoming a PT. Very few "bridge" programs exist that allow PTAs to upgrade their education in this way. In most cases, you would have to start at the very beginning of a physical therapist degree program.
Education for physical therapists now extends to the graduate level. Most PT programs are highly competitive, award doctorates, and take six to seven years to complete. Becoming a PTA first would be taking the long way.
That's why it is advisable to choose the career you really want—either PTA or PT—before you begin your schooling.
How Can I Get Started?
Contact a variety of physical therapy facilities and ask if you can come observe or job shadow a PTA. Talk to some students and graduates of different PTA programs in your area. Or, if you already know that this is a field you want to pursue, then check out our list of physical therapist assistant schools. You could soon be taking your first big step toward a highly satisfying career.
* Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, web site last accessed on Sept. 16, 2011.
** Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition, web site last accessed on Sept. 16, 2011.
The Occupational Information Network (O*NET), web site last accessed on Sept. 16, 2011.
American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), web site last accessed on Sept. 19, 2011.
The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), web site last accessed on Sept. 16, 2011.
Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT), web site last accessed on Sept. 16, 2011.