Physical therapy assistants offer help and support to physical therapists in the care and treatment of individuals seeking greater mobility due to injury or illness.
The role of a physical therapy assistant differs from a physical therapy aide or physical therapist.
So what is a physical therapy assistant, what are the job duties and career outlook and how can a Physical Therapy Assistant program help you become one? This page will explore all of this in detail.
Physical Therapist Assistant Job Description
Under the direction and supervision of physical therapists, physical therapist assistants treat patients through exercise, massage, gait and balance training, and other therapeutic interventions. They record patients’ progress and report the results of each treatment to the physical therapist.
Important Qualities or traits may include:
- Compassion: Physical therapist assistants and aides should enjoy helping people. They work with people who are in pain and must have empathy to help their patients.
- Detail oriented: Physical therapist assistants and aides should be organized, keep accurate records, and follow written and verbal instructions carefully to ensure quality care.
- Dexterity: Physical therapist assistants should be comfortable using their hands to provide manual therapy and therapeutic exercises. Aides should also be comfortable working with their hands to set up equipment and prepare treatment areas.
- Interpersonal skills: Physical therapist assistants and aides spend much of their time interacting with patients, their families, and other healthcare practitioners; therefore, they should be courteous and friendly.
- Physical stamina: Physical therapist assistants and aides are frequently on their feet and moving as they work with their patients. They must often kneel, stoop, bend, and stand for long periods.
Physical Therapist Assistant vs Physical Therapist Aide
Physical therapist assistants are essential to the direct care of patients while physical therapist aides usually help with indirect care such as setting up a treatment area.1
Physical therapist assistants typically do the following:
- Observe patients before, during, and after therapy, noting the patient’s status and reporting it to a physical therapist
- Help patients do specific exercises as part of the plan of care
- Treat patients using a variety of techniques, such as massage and stretching
- Use devices and equipment, such as walkers, to help patients
- Educate patients and family members about what to do after treatment
Physical therapist aides typically do the following:
- Clean treatment areas and set up therapy equipment
- Wash linens
- Help patients move to or from a therapy area
- Do clerical tasks, such as answering phones and scheduling patients
Both physical therapist assistants and aides are supervised by physical therapists.
Why Become a Physical Therapist Assistant?
Licensed physical therapist assistants are in demand. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physical therapist assistant jobs are projected to grow 33% between 2019 and 2029, a much higher rate than other jobs.2 About 15,100 openings for physical therapist assistants are projected each year, on average, over the decade.3 Many of these openings exist in nursing homes, home health and outpatient orthopedic facilities.
Three factors are leading to the growth in demand for physical therapist assistants. First, the baby boomer generation is entering an age where more serious health conditions including stroke, heart attack, mobility issues and other health issues that are associated with an aging population are manifesting. Second, modern technology helps trauma patients and newborns with birth defects stay alive. These populations rely on physical therapy services. Finally, chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease are increasingly present in the population. Physical therapists may need to help these individuals manage the effects of their condition.
Physical Therapist Assistant Salary
We know they are in demand, but how much do physical therapist assistants make? The median salary for a physical therapist assistant in May 2019 was $58,790 with the lowest ten percent earning around $33,450 and the highest ten percent earning $80,840, according to the BLS. The highest paid physical therapist assistants worked in nursing care facilities (average salary $66,840) followed by home health care services ($63,200) offices of other therapists including physical, occupational, speech and audiologists ($57,520) hospitals ($57,140) and offices of physicians ($55,490).4
Be advised, salary for entry level positions may be lower than the national average.
Physical Therapist Assistant Job Satisfaction
A good measure of job satisfaction comes down to three things: the ability to rise in a company, a good work-life balance including flexibility with hours and relatively low stress. According to US News & World Report, physical therapist assistants rank average on work-life balance, stress and upward mobility.5
Best States to Work as a Physical Therapist Assistant
Some states offer higher pay and greater job prospects than others. These tables break down the details.
Top pay by state per the BLS as of May 2019:6
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State with highest level of employment in May 2019, according to the BLS:7
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Start Your Career in Physical Therapy Assistant
Carrington College focuses on small class sizes and hands-on training. Here you’re more than a face in a room. Take the first step on your way to a new career in Physical Therapy Assistant.
Physical Therapist Assistant Jobs
Various job titles exist for physical therapist assistants. A home care physical therapist assistant or home health physical therapist assistant typically visits patients at their place of residence. An outpatient physical therapist assistant provides services in a private practice setting. A per diem physical therapist assistant (per diem PTA) is paid an hourly wage for each hour that they work. Physical therapist assistants work in nursing care facilities, in home healthcare, in physical, occupational, speech and audiologists offices, in hospitals and in offices of physicians. A self-employed physical therapist assistant must pay their own taxes and most commonly is a contract worker that is hired out by other private companies. Many physical therapist assistants work full-time, though part-time work is also common.
How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant
Some basic steps exist for anyone interested in becoming a physical therapist assistant. Most of these steps apply across the board, however, it’s a good idea to check local or state guidelines as additional steps may apply depending on the state you live in.
- Earn an associate degree from an accredited program. There are some physical therapist assistant education requirements. About 300 Physical Therapist Assistant programs exist in the United States, and they last about two years. You can expect your program to include didactic coursework and hands-on, supervised clinical work. Your Physical Therapist Assistant degree program must be accredited through the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.
- Obtain licensure or certification (all states require this step.) In order to get licensed you need to finish your degree program and take and pass the National Physical Therapy Exam administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.
- Complete any other job- or state-specific requirements. Some states require a criminal background check or other state-based exams related to the state’s laws surrounding the practice of physical therapy. For instance, California requires students to take the California Law Exam in addition to the National Physical Therapy Exam.8
- Maintain continuing education credits (in some cases.) Some states require you to continue your education by having a minimum number of continuing education (CE) credits per year.
- Consider ramping up your first-aid skills. Because they are in many medical environments, some physical therapist assistants like to get certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or basic life support (BLS.)
All states require physical therapist assistants to have an associate’s degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. You can contact the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education to find Physical Therapist Assistant programs that qualify. Once you graduate, schedule the National Physical Therapy Exam. Some states require additional exams.
What to Look for in Physical Therapist Assistant School
When considering physical therapist assistant schools, it’s a good idea to keep the following things in mind to find the right fit for you:
- Hands-on experience: While you’ll get plenty of on the job training, it’s useful to graduate having had some clinical experience. Many programs require some supervised hours in the field. This helps students get a feel for what they will be doing once they graduate and offers practical experience working with patients and physical therapists. This can help students gain experience in different environments and may help them determine what environment they’d like to practice in after graduation.
- Instructor quality: Do some research and read reviews about the school and their instructors. If possible, find a mentor or advisor (or both) that can help guide you through the program and can help set you up with the skills you need to get a job once you graduate.
- Accreditation: As mentioned your program needs to be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.
- Cost: Find a program that won’t put you in extreme debt. Talk to your school’s financial aid to determine what alternative funding options exist for you. Consider grants and scholarships.
How Long is Physical Therapist Assistant School?
Physical therapist assistant school typically takes two years to complete. You will graduate with an associate degree. This time estimate is if you attend full-time. Some programs may offer part-time options with a longer time frame to graduation.
Can I Study Physical Therapist Assisting Online?
Currently no physical therapist assistant programs online programs exist where 100% of the program happens virtually. This, in large part, is because of the need to do in-person clinical work. Some schools may offer blended learning with some classes online and others in person.
Explore a Physical Therapist Assistant Career
Carrington College’s Physical Therapist Assisting Program offers you the hands-on training you need. Take the first step on your way to a new career.
What Will I Learn in Carrington’s Physical Therapist Assistant Courses?
The Physical Therapist Assistant program at Carrington College prepares students with the classes and clinical experience they need to provide physical therapy interventions across a variety of settings. Students will take a mixture of technical and general education courses. The program is designed to get graduates ready for entry-level positions. Upon finishing coursework, students enter into clinical settings where they get real-world, hands-on training. Students who successfully complete the Physical Therapist Assistant program are eligible to take the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) for PTAs. To work as a physical therapist assistant in California, graduates must also pass the California Law Examination (CLE), which relates to the practice of physical therapy. Carrington College prepares students to take appropriate certification and licensure exams related to their individual majors. The College does not guarantee students will successfully pass these exams or be certified or licensed as a result of completing the program.
Physical Therapist Assistant Classes
The required Carrington technical and general education courses follow:
- BIO 107: Human Anatomy and Physiology I
- BIO 207: Human Anatomy and Physiology II
- BIO 222: Clinical Kinesiology
- ENG 101: English Writing and Composition
- GOV 141: Nevada and US Constitutions (Las Vegas only)
- MAT 101: Principles of Mathematics
- PHY 222: Physics
- PSY 101: Introduction to Psychology
- PTA 112: Fundamentals of Physical Therapy Assisting
- PTA 153.1: Physical Agents and Soft Tissue Mobilization
- PTA 177: Management of Orthopedic Disorders
- PTA 189: Pathophysiology for the PTA
- PTA 199: Clinical Education I
- PTA 210: Management of Neurologic Disorders
- PTA 223: Advanced Concepts for PTA
- PTA 224: Physical Therapy Data Collection and Documentation
- PTA 230: Clinical Applications Across the Lifespan
- PTA 240: Ethics and Jurisprudence
- PTA 259: Clinical Education II
- PTA 289: Clinical Education III
- PTA 298: Licensure Review
- SOC 101: Introduction to Sociology (Boise, Mesa and Pleasant Hill only)
- SPH 205: Interpersonal Communications
Prepare for a Career in Physical Therapy With Carrington College
Carrington College offers students a program that prepares them for the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) for PTAs. Students will have hands-on clinical experience in a variety of health care settings. Students will graduate with an associate of science degree. They’ll take both general education courses in things like writing and psychology as well as technical classes in things like human anatomy and physiology and kinesiology. They’ll learn the skills necessary to pursue rewarding careers as physical therapist assistants. Learn more about the Physical Therapist Assistant program.