Physical Therapy Assistant — A Great Career

Working as a physical therapy assistant can be an extremely satisfying job, particularly if you develop a good rapport with your patients, you don’t object to a schedule that’s often changing, and you can manage a role which sometimes calls for physical stamina.

A physical therapist assistant can look forward to great job prospects over the next few years. It’s been predicted that jobs in the sector will rise by as much as 35% between the years 2008 and 2018, and recent salary surveys showed that those working in this field earned on average around $46,000 per year — that’s nearly twice as much as the median salary of physical therapist aides. No wonder then that people are turning to health care as a profession in general, and to physical therapy assisting in particular!

What Do Physical Therapy Assistants Do?

Physical Therapy Assistant    A Great Career

The primary role of the physical therapy assistant is to help a licensed physical therapist to administer care. Physical therapists assess patients and draw up treatment plans, and their assistants work under their supervision and direction to deliver therapy, instruct patients, and aid them in completing the various prescribed exercises. They also have an important role in documenting care, and communicating the progress of treatment and any associated problems to their supervisor. They may also be responsible for maintaining open communication with families of patients as needed, and sometimes carry out a variety of administrative tasks as well.

Getting Started in Your Physical Therapy Assistant Career

Here is a video featuring more information about a working as a physical therapy assistant:

Training For A Career As A Physical Therapy Assistant

Because of the wide ranging knowledge and skills required by a PTA, specialist training is undertaken by those wishing to enter this profession. Candidates normally spend about two years earning their Associate’s degree, and as well as gaining relevant medical knowledge they should also have plenty of hands-on experience in a practical setting such as an internship. Qualifying programs and courses may be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).

A common scenario is a course lasting five semesters that incorporates general education, specific physical therapy classes (such as anatomy and physiology, neuroscience, biomechanics, behavioural science, kinesiology, and ethics), and clinical education. The clinical component typically comprises about 25% of the course. Some institutions offer part of their programs through online education.

Almost every state in the US requires a physical therapy assistant to be licensed, and in order to take the licensure exam you must have graduated from a program accredited by CAPTE. The National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) set by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy tests a wide range of competencies, from theory, examination, diagnosis and prognosis, to preventative and consultative procedures and treatment interventions. Individual states have their own requirements, and may include the need to show credits for continuing education courses in order for a practicing physical therapy assistant to maintain their licence.

Currently, about three quarters of physical therapy assistant staff work in hospitals or health care providers’ offices, with the remainder operating in complementary facilities such as nursing homes, outpatient centres, home health services and the like. Some 28% of PTAs work part-time, and many work a varying timetable which fits in with the availability of patients who may be otherwise occupied during the working day.

The need for physical therapy assistant personnel is likely to increase as life expectancy extends and medical science brings new procedures to help trauma victims, people with disabilities, and patients who have suffered sudden, incapacitating events such as a stroke or heart attack. Physical therapists may find economies through having assistants deliver prescribed treatment plans under their supervision. A combination of excellent employment prospects and sound salary potential make this a popular option for those who are interested in a physical therapy assistant career based on training from an Associate’s degree program.

Physical Therapy Assistant Programs

It is well accepted that the best way to get into the career of physical therapy assisting is via a training program that has been accredited by CAPTE. Graduating successfully from one of these PTA schools with an Associate of Applied Science degree or its equivalent will not only equip you with the skills and knowledge needed to handle an entry-level job as a PTA, but it will also make eligible to take the NPTE in order to get your license (or certification, as it is sometimes called.) This is mandatory for practicing physical therapy professionals in almost every state in the country.

CAPTE currently lists 276 accredited programs — you can go to the CAPTE website to check up on the most recent listings in their directory. It is organized by state, so you can find out easily whether there is a physical therapist assistant school near where you live. With so many schools and community colleges offering this training, it’s likely that you won’t have to travel too far.

But what do you do if you live in a state where there is no physical therapy assistant program available — or none within easy reach? One solution is to look for physical therapy assistant schools online. There can be few people who are not aware of the explosion in online education options, especially for career training. If you’re the sort of student who can manage their own study schedule and has the independence of mind and self-motivation to persevere away from the classroom, online learning might work well for you.

As far as training to be a physical therapy assistant is concerned, however, the only option for online training is to look for a hybrid program. This sort of arrangement is offered by a few schools, and it mixes the distance learning model with the traditional on-campus approach. The academic, theoretical parts of the training that may be taught through lectures are available online, and thus can be studied at home. But it’s a precondition of CAPTE accreditation that a program should teach lab classes on-site, and require the students to attend full-time clinical experiences. This is the major limitation for online physical therapist assistant schools, but this half and half solution may at least make a program accessible to those who might not otherwise be able to undertake training.

Admissions Criteria for PTA Schools

As you research a variety of physical therapy assistant programs and schools, you’ll come to notice that many of them operate similar admissions policies to accommodate the fact that there are usually many more applicants than there are spaces on course. This means that the smart student will do their homework well in advance, find out as much as possible about various program options, learn about the school, and, most specifically, discover what sort of experience, skills, and achievements and admissions panel is looking for in an applicant.

Every school has its own standards and criteria for entry to a PTA program, and you can visit the faculty website pages for up-to-date details and information about the application deadlines. Each department is very specific about its requirements for candidates, and you should not assume that what is expected in one school will be the same as in another. For example, while schools almost always require a period of observation or volunteer work or work experience as evidence of an applicant’s commitment to their chosen career and understanding of what it involves, the length of time may vary — perhaps anything between 20 and 40 weeks. Some schools will want to see it carried out in more than one location. Others may require an actual testimonial from the licensed physical therapist who supervised the observation.

These are just examples of how requirements differ — make sure you know well in advance what the school you want to attend expects of applicants.

PTA colleges need to make sure that students beginning a program have received the necessary foundation training to manage the technical core components of the course. So they will usually look at an applicant’s skills in areas such as

  • English composition
  • algebra
  • medical terminology
  • foundation anatomy and physiology.

They may also require some humanities or fine arts courses, computer skills and other subject areas.

A student’s competence in these areas will be reflected in their grades: a minimum grade C is normally required, with a grade point average of around 2.5.

Some schools also administer special tests to measure skills of reading, math, science, English and language use. One example in common use is the Health Occupations Basic Entrance Test or HOBET V, which assesses these areas with four-option multiple choice questions.

As a physical therapy assistant relies so much on interpersonal skills in his or her everyday work, admissions departments often like to interview prospective candidates for a program, in addition to setting paper tests and a series of pre-requisite benchmarks for entry.

PTA Program Curriculum Content

When successful applicants begin the main professional elements of their training program, they’ll face a number of classes or modules in areas such as

  • kinesiology
  • pathophysiology
  • therapeutic modalities
  • therapeutic exercise
  • rehabilitation techniques
  • data collection and recording
  • legal and ethical issues
  • trends relating to the practice of physical therapy
  • lab classes
  • clinical rotations

There is often a prescribed progression through this course content, with a passing grade in one class being required before a student can move onto the next. Particular classes may only be available in a specific semester, and a student will usually need to pass all of them in order to graduate.

Licensure For Physical Therapy Assistants

As well as being trained by an accredited program, aspiring PTAs almost always need to be credentialed before they can start working. These credentials usually take the form of a licence or certification, obtained from an individual state’s regulatory Board of Physical Therapy after passing the NPTE. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, the only states that currently do not have this requirement are Colorado and Hawaii. Once a licence has been granted, it will need to be renewed on a regular basis. A working physical therapy assistant usually needs to show evidence of a minimum period of continuing education to keep their licence up-to-date.

Earning a Physical Therapy Assistant Salary

Working in this career is a demanding but fulfilling occupation, offering scope for PTA to use a wide range of skills and work with many different types of patients, from the disabled and post-surgery convalescents, to accidental trauma victims, stroke victims, or people with birth defects. But as well as the reward that comes from helping people relieve pain and improve their mobility, a physical therapy assistant can expect to earn a competitive salary, whether working full or part-time.

In 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics carried out a survey of PTAs currently in employment as part of a nationwide analysis of job statistics in a wide range of industries. Of particular interest are the findings of how much they earn, based on regional location and industry setting. A large number of factors influence an individual’s wage level, from length of experience and special skills, to managerial or administrative responsibilities. But the statistics offer a “ballpark figure” in which a person may base their general expectations.

A general point that emerges is that a physical therapy assistant earns on average roughly twice as much as a physical therapy aide, reflecting the different nature of their roles and the requirements of assistants to be educated to Associate degree level. Having said that, it should be noted that the BLS figures do not include self-employed PTAs, and that many individuals work part-time as well as in the evenings or at weekends. So an hourly wage is stated, and where an annual figure is given, it is predicated on the notion of a person working a 40 hour week over 52 weeks of the year.

It emerges that the industry paying the highest hourly mean wage ($28.62) is home health care services, followed closely by management of companies and enterprises. Meanwhile, the state with the highest hourly mean wage ($30.02) is Texas — the equivalent of an annual mean salary of $62,440.

As expected, estimates range quite widely across the salary spectrum, dependent on a wide number of factors, some of which have been discussed above. Nationally, the hourly range for the lowest 10% was $14.94, or $31,070 a year, and for the 90% percentile it was $33.09 per hour, or $68,820 per year.

Physical Therapy Assisting in the News

There are lots of ways in which physical therapy professionals draw attention to the benefits that their services can bring, not just to cure ailments and alleviate symptoms, but also to help prevent them.

A good example of this type of public information campaign is the promotion of National Physical Therapy Month, which takes place every October. Each year, a different theme is chosen which focuses on a particular aspect of how physical therapy can help people as they grow older to maintain active and independent lifestyles.

In 2011, the theme is “preventing sports injury across the lifespan”. It comes at an apposite time of year, as running enthusiasts in many cities across the country get in training for the marathon. Distance running can place considerable stress on many parts of the body, particularly the joints. Runners take advantage of helpful advice to get tips on how to improve their performance, development training technique and avoid injuries. There’s even an e-book called the Physical Therapist’s Guide to Healthy Running, published to help athletes with their form.

Physical Therapy As We Age

As we get older, many of us suffer with problems of balance and coordination. This can be a problem, not only because of the accidents that can happen, but because the fear of falling may cause sufferers to restrict their activity and gradually reduce their opportunities for taking healthy exercise.

A physical therapist can conduct an assessment of an individual’s “falling risk” and prescribe some routines and adjustments to help mitigate these fears. Under their supervision and direction, a PTA can work with a patient to do exercises to strengthen and stretch muscles, and improve their balance when walking.

Other examples of patients who may be helped by a physical therapy regimen are those who are recovering from surgery such as knee replacement, stroke victims, and suffers from Parkinson’s disease. According to the assessment of the physical therapist, treatments may be proposed to improve gait, flexibility, strength, and general fitness. There is often an important psychological dimension to this type of therapy which complements the physical benefits that a patient may derive.

With very good employment prospects, the potential for a good salary, and growing availability of physical therapy assistant jobs, working as a PTA remains a very popular choice of career.