If you have a heart for helping others and a knack for being active, then it’s no surprise that becoming a physical therapist assistant (PTA) has crossed your mind. In addition to ushering in the rewarding opportunity to help boost the quality of life of others, you’re desperately required in today’s health care system.
If pursuing a career as a physical therapy assistant is intriguing, then read on to gain insight into why it’s appealing, what it encompasses, and how to get the ball rolling.
The Job Description of a Physical Therapist Assistant
You’re ready for a career that not only allows you to break the monotony of working behind a desk all day and impact others but also brings home the bacon. If providing patient care that includes physical therapy service and encouraging others tickles your fancy, then you might be a perfect fit to become a licensed physical therapist.
Although you’re familiar with this job title, the last thing you want is to jump hastily enroll into a physical therapist assistant program before getting an understanding of what your day-to-day will entail. A PT assistant works loosely with a licensed physical therapist to help patients regain their full range of motion via therapeutic exercise when an illness takes them out of the game or after sustaining an injury.
With that being said, let’s explore the job description of a physical therapy assistant to know whether these duties sound like the makings of your dream career.
While you might think a job that revolves around a patient’s range of motion would call for immense physical work, the truth is, a physical therapist assistant spends most of their day monitoring their patients, according to the Department of Labor. They document their patients’ progress, allowing them to collaborate with a licensed physical therapist to determine the next best step in their recovery.
2. Family and Patient Education
A patient’s treatment doesn’t end when they leave the physical therapy facility. A PT assistant is usually responsible for ensuring a patient and their loved ones understand the therapeutic exercise they must do at home to continue their rehabilitation. A patient and their family require a physical therapy aide who can walk them through how the treatment plan works and concisely answer any lingering queries or concerns they may have.
3. Therapeutic Massage
The job description of a licensed physical therapist assistant includes using a wealth of techniques to help patients regain a standard range of motion which includes a therapeutic massage. It’s this special massage technique that can aid in alleviating pain, improving blood circulation, and decreasing muscle tension, all of which are essential in the healing process.
4. Ultrasound Therapy
While the term ‘ultrasound’ might evoke thoughts of the routine imaging procedure that occurs during pregnancies, there’s a boatload of other ultrasound uses in the health care industry. Therapeutic ultrasound releases sound waves useful in reducing swelling, increasing blood flow, and loosening tissues. With an array of therapeutic perks, it’s no surprise that this is one of the main skills an employer looks for when hiring a physical therapy assistant.
There’s no denying that when you think of physical therapy, thoughts of people with sports injuries come to mind. However, you may not realize that amputees are another population that usually depends on the physical therapy service. The job description of a physical therapist assistant involves teaching amputees the best way to utilize their prosthetic devices as part of their rehabilitation. While these prosthetics can give patients new opportunities in life, they require careful training and rehabilitation plans to get patients functioning to nearly 100%.
A physical therapy assistant spends their entire day interacting with others, whether it’s reporting back to the physical therapist with the day’s observations and reports or explaining treatment plans to patients.
Physical therapist aides need to be experts at actively listening and explaining complex medical terminology so that patients can easily understand. It goes beyond communicating technical rehabilitation details.
A physical therapy assistant does their fair share of ‘cheerleading’ as patients strive to make progress. It’s this encouragement that contributes to patients regaining their mobility.
7. Treatment Planning
Although a physical therapist assistant comes up with a patient’s treatment plan along with a licensed physical therapist, they have a say in the next steps of the rehabilitation process. According to the market analysis, a physical therapy assistant with clinical experience in treatment planning is in higher demand in the world of physical therapy.
8. Home Health
The ability to rehabilitate patients from the comfort of their homes is another desirable skill that physical therapist aides should possess. A wealth of physical therapy facilitates provide in-home physical therapy service to patients who are unable to drive to a hospital or outpatient clinic. This type of care is particularly common for patients who have undergone hip or knee surgery or are recovering from a fall. Therefore, it implies the ability to creatively adapt to potentially less-than-ideal rehabilitation spaces while providing excellent patient care.
A physical therapy aide or PT assistant must be able to make sound decisions right off the bat about a patient’s treatment plan. After all, a patient can sustain serious injury if pushed beyond their limits during therapeutic exercise.
Contrarily, a patient may not recover as quickly as expected if they’re given stretches or other forms of exercise that aren’t intense enough. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that decision-making skills are vital for physical therapist aides.
Education and Licensure for Physical Therapist Assistants
Multiple pathways are available for students that are interested in pursuing a career as a physical therapist assistant. However, the most direct route is to enroll in an accredited physical therapist assistant program right after high school.
Given that the path to a physical therapy aide is short, typically two-year degrees, your actions in high school can play a key role in you entering the physical therapy workforce.
Use your time in high school wisely to ensure you hit the ground running when you get to college. Science and math classes are particularly essential to aspiring physical therapist aides. High school classes in algebra, chemistry, and biology will prepare you for rigorous college coursework.
By completing advanced placement classes in chemistry and biology, you’re eligible for a top-flight physical therapist assistant program. A multitude of associate degree and bachelor’s degree programs require a minimum grade point average, which means students must maintain a high GPA to qualify for their preferred school.
Academic performance is just one aspect in preparation for medical careers such as a physical therapy assistant. PTAs spend long days on their feet and usually lift patients. Therefore, a PTA student should also spend ample time in the gym like an athletic trainer to ensure their body can keep up with their brain.
A PTA student who graduates with an associate degree from a college with accreditation from the CAPTE, an acronym for the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, is required to work as a physical therapist assistant.
In 2017, more than 300 associate degree programs received accreditation from the CAPTE. During two-year degree programs, students will spend about 75% of their time in the classroom and 25% getting hands-on clinical experience.
The common courses of physical therapy education include medical terminology, anatomy, kinesiology, pathology, physiology, biology, physical therapy assistant techniques, and therapy exercises.
A PTA student usually begins clinical training or physical therapy practice between their 3rd and 5th semesters while taking classroom-based physical therapy education. The training is referred to as clinical education, an internship, or clinical practice.
Despite the name, here’s where students gain first-hand clinical experience in providing patient care under the strict supervision of a licensed physical therapist assistant.
Clinical training plays a crucial role in the transition from preparation to practice as a PTA student takes what they’ve learned in the classroom and applies it in a broad range of settings such as nursing homes, hospitals, and rehabilitation centers, while receiving additional teaching, feedback, advice, and guidance from mentors.
In addition to an associate degree from an accredited PTA program, certification or licensure is required in all states to work as a physical therapist assistant. To earn licensure, an aspiring occupational therapy assistant must pass the NPTE Exam (National Physical Therapy), which the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy administers.
Comprising 200 multiple-choice questions and four sections, it’s important for students to thoroughly prepare for the NPTE. Although a PTA student can retake the exam, they can only do so up to thrice in a year and a total of six times. After passing the NPTE, you’ll become a licensed physical therapist aide.
Life-long learners are best suited for medical careers as a physical therapist aide. In most cases, the education of a physical therapy assistant goes beyond the NPTE. Every state has its laws governing physical therapy practice, and some states require applicants to pass an additional exam revolving around the state’s laws concerning the practice of PT assistants. Furthermore, it’s the norm for states to require a PT assistant to take continuing education classes to maintain their licensure.
The PTA Skills On Demand
After passing the NPTE and earning an associate degree, you’re almost ready to kick off your career as an occupational therapist aide.
However, before blindly diving into the career search process, knowing the skills that employers are looking for in a physical therapist assistant can set you apart from the pack.
- Family and patient education
- Treatment planning
- Home health
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
Although an excellent physical therapy assistant program is geared towards arming you with the necessary skills, improved proficiency in these skill areas will help you put your best foot forward. Additionally, you might consider participating in extracurricular activities to hone your skills.
For instance, coaching youth sports is an ideal option for anyone seeking to step up their motivational and training skills by a few notches. Secondly, volunteering in a nursing home is a great way to show your interest in working with the elderly.
Finding a Physical Therapist Assistant Program
In your quest to find a top-notch physical therapy assistant program, you need to keep an eye out for a few essential elements. By asking yourself the following questions, you’ll find the best educational fit for you.
1. What do you need to gain admission?
Gaining admission into a PTA program is the first step. Although it might seem straightforward at first glance, there’s a lot that goes into securing a position in a physical therapist assistant program.
The fact that entry requirements aren’t universal in all schools complicates things. Acceptance into a physical therapy assistant program can require completion of course perquisites, job shadowing time, minimum GPA requirements, and PTA-related volunteer hours are all relatively common potential requirements.
Furthermore, a physical therapy program may have waitlists for candidates that are otherwise qualified.
Based on your background, the state educational requirements, the institution you’re applying to, and your goals, fulfilling these requirements can range from potentially frustrating to attainable. Therefore, conduct your due diligence by taking the time to learn more about the requirements for each PTA program. It might be useful to monitor admissions requirements for each potential physical therapist assistant program on a spreadsheet for easier comparison.
2. What are your scheduling options?
There’s a high likelihood that you’ll have other commitments or complicating factors when attending a PTA program, such as hobbies, work, and family. These aspects of your life are important to you, which means you’ll want to consider the scheduling flexibility of a physical therapist assistant program.
For instance, does the physical therapy program include any online courses? How often are you required to attend classes or be in the lab to complete your training? Online courses are one of the most convenient ways to create a more malleable schedule.
Granted, the online option has scheduled elements. However, a PTA student has more control of their location and timing. Online students can learn from anywhere; at the local coffee shop, before work, during their lunch break, or after dinner, right before heading to bed. The flexibility that comes with studying course content when it best suits them is unmatched.
3. What experience does the faculty have?
It’s a no-brainer that instructors play a key role in physical therapy education that includes continuing education. You want to know that you’re learning from professors with profound clinical experience in physical therapy and understand how to tutor you through challenging subjects.
When researching for a PTA program online, keep your eyes peeled for the faculty and their qualifications. Typically, you’ll find leadership and instructors with a blend of physical therapist assistant experience and Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). It’s this combination that provides invaluable insight and clinical experience.
Although you don’t need to be bosom buddies with your instructors, getting a feel of the personalities you’ll be spending a significant amount of time with can make all the difference. If possible, visit the potential campuses and meet some of the physical therapy instructors.
You might find a physical therapist assistant program that allows you to sit in on a lab or class during your visit, giving you a great sense of the instructors’ teaching styles.
4. What can you expect from the lab experience?
As a PTA student, labs are undeniably the first foray in gaining hands-on clinical experience with the treatments and methods that you’ll apply every day in your career as a physical therapy aide. Real patient exposure and practical experience in a physical therapy assistant program help build your confidence, allowing your future patients to trust you.
5. What can you expect from the clinical experience?
Your clinical experience will allow you to build your future as a physical therapist assistant. In addition to ushering in the opportunities to apply what you’ve learned in the PTA program; you’ll hone your skills and find more inspiration as you get the chance to provide patient care.
Furthermore, you’ll strengthen your soft skills such as creativity, communication, and intuition, all of which directly affect your future patients.
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) states that most students enrolled in a physical therapist assistant program spend up to 16 weeks in full-time clinical education. It includes a boatload of practices and environments such as an outpatient clinic, a hospital, and a nursing facility.
After a clinical readiness assessment, a PTA student completes two independent clinical experiences, spending up to 36 hours per week, which translates to a total of 570 hours between the two. Concurrently, students take an online course on patient management, clinical decision-making, and communication skills.
As you research for a potential physical therapist assistant program, ensure you inquire about the clinical experiences. They’ll help you establish connections and build your resume that can help you find a physical therapist assistant job.
6. Will a physical therapist assistant program prepares you for licensure?
You may not realize that APTA licensure is a requirement in all states if you want to practice alongside a licensed physical therapist. To gain licensure, you must pass the NPTE for a physical therapy assistant administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.
A PTA student who has attended a program with accreditation by the CAPTE is eligible to sit for the exam. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that additional state educational requirements may be a necessity before you can qualify as a certified physical therapy aide.
Upon researching for occupational therapy assistant program, keep an eye out for CAPTE accreditation and learn how the program will help you prepare for the exam. For instance, some colleges will allow you to prepare for the NPTE while completing a portfolio of your acquired skills.
The best PTA programs in the US are:
- The University of Washington in Seattle, WA
- California State University, Long Beach in 1250 Bellflower Blvd, Long Beach, CA
- New York Institute of Technology in 1855 Broadway, New York, NY
- The University of Maryland in 8082 Baltimore Ave, College Park, MD
- The University of Indianapolis in 1400 E Hanna Ave, Indianapolis, IN
- AT Still University in 5850 E Still Cir, Mesa, AZ
- The George Washington University in 2121 I St NW, Washington, DC
- Eastern Washington University in 526 5th St, Cheney, WA
- Sacred Heart University Connecticut in 5151 Park Ave, Fairfield, CT
- Old Dominion University in 5115 Hampton Blvd, Norfolk, VA
Job Outlook for Physical Therapy Assistants
When it comes to health care careers, most people don’t think of physical therapist assistant jobs. However, the truth is, they play a crucial role in the medical industry, which is evident in the rapid growth in the field. According to the Bureau of Labor, physical therapist assistant jobs are expected to grow by 18% by 2029, which is significantly greater than other occupations.
Therefore, this translates to 47,000 more job opportunities. Like other medical careers, the aging baby boomer generation is triggering a spike in the demand for physical therapist assistant jobs as age-related health problems and retirements are on the rise.
Additionally, a licensed physical therapist is expected to rely more on a certified physical therapy aide to lower the cost of physical therapy services.
How Much Does a PT Assistant Make?
If you want to become a physical therapist assistant, it’s no secret that you’re curious about their average salary. Well, you’re in for some good news. A physical therapist assistant has a powerful earning potential, particularly when factoring in that these jobs can be attained with associate degrees.
The average annual earnings for a physical therapist assistant are $58,040, which is a significant step up from the initial median salary of $38,640. It’s worth noting that the salary of a certified physical therapy aide providing patient care varies based on the employer and clinical experience. The lowest 10% earn below $33,780, whereas the highest 10% earn more than $79,780.
The BLS states that the average physical therapist assistant salary was the greatest for a PTA providing at-home care and those employed in nursing home facilities. Now that you’re aware of the job outlook of a physical therapist assistant, let’s discuss the cost of a physical therapist assistant program.
How Much Does a PTA Program Cost?
Granted, you’re curious about the cost of physical therapy education and understandably so to avoid unwarranted surprises. The fees and tuition differ regionally and change based on whether you’re enrolling as an out-of-state or in-state PTA student. Additionally, public schools are cheaper than the private counterparts.
In the US, 392 colleges and universities are offering assistant vocational or physical therapy technician programs. The average fees and tuition for these programs are $13,350 as of 2020. Keep in mind that in addition to the fees and tuition, other expenses that you’ll likely incur are:
- Grocery bills
- Accommodation (monthly rent on a dorm or apartment)
- Transportation costs or gas
- Lab equipment and other school supplies
- Activity fees such as school sports
Tips To Make Physical Therapy Education Easier
We all approach studying and learning differently, so we’ve rounded up a few tips that will make the life of a PTA student less stressful.
- Avoid falling behind on your reading assignments
- Always use the resources that the instructors recommend for wider knowledge on physical therapy
- Foster relationships and network with faculty, students, and professors
- Get organized by setting a realistic schedule and sticking to it
- Participate in group work and class assignments
- Seek assistance from career advisors whenever possible
Interviewing Tips: How to Dress for PTA Interviews
After completing your physical therapy education, the next course of action is to interview for a full-time clinical position as a licensed physical therapist assistant. While it can be confusing to know the most ideal way to present yourself in PTA interviews, these tips will steer you on the right path.
- Avoid wearing scrubs to your interviews.
- Ensure your hygiene is ideal and your hair is neat. Additionally, you’ll want to double-check that the zippers or buttons on your clothes are done properly.
- Wear neutral-colored clothing. Avoid bright colors as they can be distracting.
- Wear professional shoes such as short, black heels for women and leather shoes for men (brown or black).
- Wear mild perfume and makeup if you must, as you’ll likely be in a small room during the interview.
- A professional skirt or pantsuit is ideal for women, whereas a business suit is suitable for men. Some PTA positions may require a tie and slacks for a man. However, you can never go wrong with a suit.