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How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

By Oluwadamilola Osisanya

Published:

Have you ever been captivated by the seamless blend of hands guiding a patient’s recovery or the transformative power of therapeutic movement in rebuilding strength? Dive into a world where empathy meets expertise — introducing the role of a Physical Therapist Assistant! As you step into this dynamic arena of health and rehabilitation, you’ll journey through the intricate dance of human motion and learn how your dedication to healing can evolve into a vibrant and impactful career as a Physical Therapist Assistant.

Career Summary

Physical Therapist Assistant Salary

Physical Therapist Assistant Salary

Understanding the salary figures for any profession, including for a physical therapist assistant (PTA), is essential. It provides a realistic expectation of potential earnings at different career stages.

Listed below are the salary figures of a physical therapist assistant, according to Glassdoor:

  • Entry Salary (US$60k)
  • Median Salary (US$77k)
  • Executive Salary (US$100k)

Compared to the general average salary across the United States, which was reported to be $61,900 in 2022, entry-level physical therapist assistants receive slightly lower compensation.

What does a Physical Therapist Assistant do?

A Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) works under the supervision of a Physical Therapist (PT) to provide therapeutic services to patients aiming to alleviate pain and improve or restore mobility. Their primary responsibilities include implementing specific components of patient treatment plans designed by the PT, such as guiding patients through exercises, providing manual therapy techniques, and utilizing therapeutic modalities like ultrasound or electrical stimulation.

Additionally, PTAs observe and document patient progress, offering feedback to the supervising PT. They also educate patients and their families about treatment procedures and home exercises. Ensuring patient safety, understanding contraindications for specific treatments, and maintaining communication with the PT are crucial aspects of the PTA’s role.

Physical Therapist Assistant Career Progression

  • Entry-level Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA): As a newly graduated or certified PTA, you typically start in an entry-level position. At this stage, you will assist physical therapists in executing treatment plans, observing patients, and documenting progress. You will also typically work under close supervision to gain practical experience.
  • Experienced Physical Therapist Assistant: Once you’ve gained a few years of experience, you will become adept at handling various patient needs, utilizing therapeutic techniques, and communicating effectively with patients and team members. You may also mentor or guide junior PTAs.
  • Specialized Physical Therapist Assistant: You may decide to specialize in areas like pediatric physical therapy, geriatric care, orthopedics, or sports rehabilitation. Gaining additional certifications or training in these areas makes you an expert in a particular field of physical therapy.
  • PTA Supervisor or Team Lead: With significant experience and demonstrated skills, you can progress to supervisory roles. Here, you will manage a team of PTAs, ensure adherence to protocols, coordinate schedules, and may also handle specific administrative duties.
Physical Therapist Assistant Career Progression

Pros:

  • Helping patients regain mobility and independence.
  • Competitive salary and benefits.
  • Opportunity to build strong patient relationships.
  • Growing job demand and stability.
  • Collaborating with a healthcare team.

Cons:

  • Repetitive tasks leading to burnout.
  • Exposure to patients’ pain and suffering.
  • Potential exposure to contagious illnesses.
  • Emotionally taxing when patients don’t make progress.
  • Irregular work hours in some settings.

Useful Skills to Have as a Physical Therapist Assistant

  • Empathy and patience.
  • Manual dexterity and physical strength.
  • Ability to follow instructions accurately.
  • Adaptability to various treatment approaches.
  • Active listening abilities.

Popular Physical Therapist Assistant Specialties

  • Wound Care Physical Therapist Assistant
  • Aquatic Physical Therapist Assistant
  • Home Health Physical Therapist Assistant
  • Neurological Physical Therapist Assistant
  • Geriatric Physical Therapist Assistant
  • Orthopedic Physical Therapist Assistant
  • Pediatric Physical Therapist Assistant

How to become a Physical Therapist Assistant

Physical Therapist Assistant 5 Steps to Career

Becoming a PTA is underpinned by a strong educational foundation and practical experience. This synergy of knowledge and on-ground training is indispensable, ensuring that PTAs are well-versed in therapeutic techniques and can apply them effectively to aid patients in their recovery journey.

Education

The path to any specialized profession is often paved with rigorous educational milestones, and becoming a physical therapist assistant is no exception. Understanding the physical therapist assistant education requirements is crucial. In this context, education is the foundation of all the necessary skills and competencies.

Do I need a degree to become a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Yes, in the United States, to become a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA), you typically need an associate degree from an accredited PTA program. Here are the general steps to become a PTA in the US:

  • Education: Enroll in and complete an associate degree program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). These programs typically last about two years and include classroom and clinical components.
  • Licensing Exam: After completing the educational requirements, graduates must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) for PTAs, administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT).
  • State Licensure: Besides passing the NPTE, most states have additional licensure requirements, including background checks, jurisprudence exams, or other criteria. It’s crucial to check the state’s specific requirements in which you wish to practice.
  • Continuing Education: Once licensed, PTAs often need to complete continuing education to maintain their licensure, depending on state regulations.

While an associate degree is the minimum requirement to become a PTA, some professionals may further their education with bachelor’s or master’s degrees in related fields. However, these are not typically required for PTAs.

Why is it important to get an Associate degree in PTA?

An associate degree in PTA is essential for several specific reasons:

  • Accredited Education: Only by pursuing an associate degree from a CAPTE-accredited program can an aspiring PTA ensure they receive a curriculum that meets established national standards for PTA education. This guarantees a certain level of quality and comprehensiveness in the training.
  • Licensing and Certification: In many jurisdictions, especially in the US, passing the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) for PTAs is a requirement for licensure. Eligibility to take this exam generally hinges on graduating from an accredited PTA associate degree program. Without the PTA degree, an individual might not qualify to take the exam or obtain licensure.
  • Practical Training: The associate degree programs incorporate clinical internships or hands-on training sessions, ensuring students understand the theoretical aspects and gain practical experience in real-world settings.
  • Broad Foundation: The degree provides a comprehensive overview of the field, including courses in anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and specific therapeutic techniques. This broad knowledge base is crucial for PTAs to be effective in their roles and adapt to various clinical scenarios.
  • Professional Credibility: Holding a recognized degree enhances the credibility of a PTA in the eyes of employers, colleagues, and patients. It signals that the PTA has undergone rigorous training and meets the educational standards set for the profession.
  • Career Advancement: While working as a PTA, having an associate degree may open doors to further educational opportunities, specializations, or administrative roles.

For an aspiring PTA, obtaining an associate’s degree is not just a formality; it’s a foundational step that equips them with the necessary knowledge, skills, and credentials to practice effectively and advance in their career.

How long does it take to get an Associate degree in Physical Therapist Assisting?

An associate degree in PTA typically takes two years of full-time study. This duration encompasses both classroom instruction and clinical experiences or internships. However, the precise length can vary based on the specific program, whether you attend full-time or part-time, and any prerequisites you might need before starting the core PTA coursework.

If you’re considering a program, it’s a good idea to check with the specific institution or school offering the degree for details about their program’s length and any prerequisites.

How much does it cost to study Physical Therapist Assisting at university?

The cost of a PTA program can vary significantly depending on various factors.

The average tuition for Physical Therapist Assistant programs in the United States is approximately $31,122 for state residents in public institutions and $51,636 for out-of-state students. In private institutions, the cost can be significantly higher.

It’s crucial to note that these figures are general estimates, and actual expenses can differ. Beyond tuition, prospective students should also budget for associated costs like room and board, textbooks, lab fees, and personal expenses.

Thankfully, students can access various financial aid options to alleviate these costs, encompassing scholarships, grants, work opportunities on campus, and loan programs.

Can I become a Physical Therapist Assistant through online education?

Yes, you can pursue a significant portion of your education to become a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) through online programs. Many colleges and universities offer online or hybrid PTA programs that allow students to complete their coursework online.

However, there are essential points to consider:

  • Clinical Requirements: While the theoretical coursework can often be completed online, the clinical components required for PTA training cannot be entirely virtual. PTA programs typically involve hands-on clinical experiences or internships in healthcare settings. These practical experiences are vital for students to gain real-world skills and understand the day-to-day tasks of a PTA. So, even if enrolled in an online program, expect to spend time in person for these clinical components.
  • Accreditation: Ensure that the online PTA program you’re considering is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Accreditation ensures that the program meets specific academic and professional standards. Graduating from an accredited program is often a requirement for licensure.
  • State Licensure: After completing the program, you’ll typically need to pass a state licensure exam to practice as a PTA. Ensure the online program you choose adequately prepares you for this exam and meets other state-specific requirements.

What are some web resources to learn skills to become a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Here are some resources you might consider:

  • American Physical Therapy Association (APTA): APTA is a professional organization representing physical therapists, assistants, and students. They offer a range of educational resources, professional development tools, and research pertinent to the field.
  • PhysicalTherapist.com: This site offers articles, forums, and other resources for physical therapy professionals. While not exclusively for PTAs, they cover topics relevant to assistant roles.
  • Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE): While primarily an accreditation body, CAPTE’s site can be a valuable resource to ensure their education aligns with recognized standards. It also lists accredited PTA programs that often have educational and resource materials.
  • Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT): FSBPT is responsible for the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) for PTAs. They offer exam preparation resources, including study guides and practice exams, which can be invaluable for those preparing to become licensed PTAs.

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Practical Experience

Stepping into the professional world as a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) requires more than just theoretical knowledge; it demands real-world, practical experience.

What are internship opportunities for a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Internship opportunities for Physical Therapist Assistants are designed to offer hands-on clinical experience, helping students to transition from academic learning to real-world patient care. These internships typically occur in clinical settings, each providing unique learning experiences.

Here are the most relevant internship settings for aspiring PTAs:

  • Outpatient Clinics: These are probably the most common settings for PTA internships. Here, PTAs learn to assist patients recovering from surgeries, injuries, or other conditions through exercises, modalities, and hands-on treatment.
  • Hospitals: Within the acute care departments, PTAs help patients admitted for a short duration due to surgeries, severe injuries, or critical illnesses. They often work with patients to improve mobility and strength, preventing complications related to immobility.
  • Rehabilitation Centers: Focused on patients who need a more extended period for recovery, these centers offer intensive therapy sessions. PTAs here often work with post-operative patients, those recovering from severe traumas, or patients with neurological disorders.
  • Skilled Nursing Facilities (SNFs) or Long-Term Care Facilities: PTAs in these settings work with elderly patients or those with conditions requiring long-term care. The emphasis is on improving the patient’s mobility, strength, and overall quality of life.
  • Home Health: In this setting, PTAs visit patients in their homes. These patients might be homebound due to severe conditions or prefer receiving therapy at home. PTAs help them regain independence in their home environment.
  • Pediatric Centers or Schools: PTAs in these settings work with children who have developmental delays, disabilities, or injuries. The goal is often to help the child achieve milestones, improve mobility, or integrate into regular school activities.
  • Orthopedic Centers: These centers specialize in musculoskeletal conditions and post-operative care. PTAs assist with rehabilitation exercises, modalities, and other treatments specific to orthopedic recovery.
  • Sports Rehabilitation Clinics: PTAs assist athletes in recovering from sports-related injuries, helping them return to their sport safely and effectively.
  • Specialized Clinics: Some clinics focus on specific conditions, like vestibular disorders, pelvic health, or chronic pain. Interning at such clinics provides specialized experience in those areas.

While these are the primary settings, it’s essential to understand that the specific nature of the internship, the patient population, and the learning experience can vary widely, even within these categories. When seeking an internship, you must consider what patient populations or conditions you’re most interested in and choose accordingly.

What Skills will I learn as a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Here are some of the most relevant skills you’ll acquire as a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA):

  • Patient Care Techniques: Understanding and executing a variety of therapeutic interventions as prescribed by the physical therapist, such as exercises, manual techniques, and modalities like ultrasound or electrical stimulation.
  • Clinical Reasoning: Assessing the effectiveness of treatments and adjusting care techniques based on patient responses and feedback from the supervising physical therapist.
  • Mobility Training: Assisting patients with gait and functional mobility training, including using devices like crutches, walkers, or wheelchairs.
  • Documentation: Accurately record patient treatments, progress, and observed responses to ensure consistent care and communication with the supervising physical therapist.
  • Safety Procedures: Implementing safety measures to prevent injuries and ensure the well-being of patients, especially when using equipment or helping patients move.
  • Interpersonal Communication: Building rapport with patients, understanding their concerns, and effectively communicating with them, their families, and other healthcare providers.
  • Professional Ethics: Adhering to the ethical guidelines of the physical therapy profession, respecting patient privacy, and advocating for patient rights.
  • Team Collaboration: Working harmoniously with physical therapists, other PTAs, and healthcare professionals to ensure comprehensive patient care.

What is the Work-Life Balance of a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Physical Therapist Assistants generally enjoy a balanced work-life dynamic. Still, specific work settings and individual roles can influence this. Typically, PTAs work standard business hours, especially if they are in outpatient clinics or private practices. This regularity allows for predictability and a structured personal life.

However, PTAs in hospitals, nursing homes, or rehabilitation centers might have varied schedules, potentially covering evenings, weekends, or holidays. The job can be physically demanding, given the hands-on nature of therapies and the need to assist patients with exercises and movements.

Despite these challenges, the role is often seen as fulfilling due to the direct positive impact on patients’ lives, contributing to a satisfying work-life equilibrium.

What’s the Career Outlook for Physical Therapist Assistants?

The career outlook for Physical Therapist Assistants (PTAs) in the USA is positive. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projected that employment of physical therapist assistants would grow by about 24% from 2021 to 2031, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is attributed to an aging baby-boom population, leading to an increased demand for physical therapy services.

The increased prevalence of chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity also means more patients will require therapy services. Furthermore, medical and technological developments should permit a higher percentage of trauma victims and newborns with congenital disabilities to survive, who will then require rehabilitative care.

Physical Therapist Assistant Popular Career Specialties

What are the Job Opportunities of a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Physical Therapist Assistants can find job opportunities in various settings.

Here are some job opportunities for PTAs:

  • Direct Patient Care: Implementing specific therapeutic interventions as part of a care plan, monitoring progress, and adjusting treatments as necessary.
  • Preventative Care: Educating patients and communities about activities or lifestyle changes to prevent injuries and promote health.
  • Healthcare Administration: PTAs interested in the operational side of healthcare can move into administrative roles within rehabilitation centers, clinics, or hospitals. This might involve managing schedules, overseeing department budgets, or coordinating therapy services.
  • Sales and Marketing for Rehabilitation Equipment: Leveraging their knowledge of therapy equipment, PTAs can transition to sales roles, representing companies that manufacture or distribute therapeutic devices and tools.
  • Consultation for Ergonomic Solutions: With human movement and posture expertise, PTAs can work with businesses to design ergonomic workplaces that minimize injury and boost employee wellbeing.
  • Recreation Therapy: PTAs can work in recreational settings like community centers or camps, especially those designed for individuals with disabilities, to facilitate and guide physical activities.
  • Health and Wellness Coaching: Drawing on their knowledge of physical wellbeing, PTAs can transition into roles as health and wellness coaches, guiding individuals in exercises, stretches, and habits that promote overall health.
  • Assistive Technology Trainer: PTAs can work with individuals with disabilities, training them to use assistive technologies like mobility aids, customized seating, or software designed to assist with daily tasks.
  • Research Assistant: Beyond clinical research, PTAs can assist in projects exploring new rehabilitation techniques, technological innovations in physical therapy, or the science of movement.

What Type of Companies Hire a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Physical Therapist Assistants can find employment in various companies and organizations.

Here are some of the most relevant types of companies that hire PTAs:

  • Physical Therapy Chains: Large national or regional companies that operate multiple outpatient physical therapy clinics. Examples include Select Physical Therapy, ATI Physical Therapy, and PT Solutions.
  • Healthcare Systems: Large healthcare organizations or hospitals that offer a broad range of medical services, including physical therapy.
  • Assisted Living Communities: Companies that manage residences for elderly individuals often employ PTAs to help residents maintain mobility and physical health.
  • Pediatric Therapy Clinics: Organizations specifically focused on offering therapeutic services to children with developmental delays, injuries, or physical disabilities.
  • Fitness and Wellness Companies: Some wellness-focused firms or health clubs might hire PTAs to oversee exercise programs or offer specialized therapeutic services to their clientele.
  • Telehealth Providers: With the rise of telemedicine, some companies now provide virtual physical therapy services, and PTAs can support these services.

Should I become a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Deciding to embark on a career as a Physical Therapist Assistant is a significant step that requires a fusion of passion, skill, and informed judgment. The pathway to becoming a PTA presents both challenges and rewards.

You must balance the objective insights shared here with your interests and aptitudes. As with any career choice, your long-term satisfaction and success will hinge not just on salary or job availability but on how well the profession aligns with your values and aspirations.

Before diving in, take a moment to reflect and gauge whether the role of a Physical Therapist Assistant truly resonates with your vision for the future. Making a well-informed decision now can pave the way for a fulfilling and successful career.


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Oluwadamilola Osisanya

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