Physical Therapy Assistant

Physical Therapy Assistant

A Physical Therapy Assistant is someone who has an associate's degree and who works under the direct supervision of a physical therapist to provide physical therapy services to those in need. Most states require a Physical Therapy Assistant to be licensed, and PTAs work in the offices of health practitioners and hospitals, although there are many other facilities at which they are also employed.

Many people suffer from various health conditions which severely limit their ability to move and their ability to perform daily functional activities. A Physical Therapist Assistant provides treatment that prevents or lessens physical disabilities, relieves pain, and improves patient mobility, under the direction of a physical therapist. Job prospects for Physical Therapist Assistants are good as the projected growth for employment is much faster than average.

This article seeks to give you as much information as possible about Physical Therapy Assistant requirements and how to become a Physical Therapy Assistant in order to assist you in your decision as to whether becoming a Physical Therapy Assistant is the career for you, and if so to assist you in making an informed decision as to where to study.

What Is A PTA/Physical Therapy Assistant?

A PTA performs a very important duty as an assistant to a physical therapist. They help patients, under direct supervision of the physical therapist, to improve their mobility, lessen their pain, and prevent or minimize physical disabilities. This is done by way of massage, gait and balance training, exercise, instruction, mechanical traction, ultrasound, and therapeutic methods like electrical stimulation.

Nature Of The Work

Ultimately, physical therapy is about providing patients with a pain-free, mobile life; one wherein they are physically capable of living a normal life.

  • Range - A Physical Therapy Assistant deals with a wide range of injuries, illnesses and conditions which impair mobility.
  • Types of Therapy - A PTA deals with long-term or semi-permanent treatment and therapies, intensive rehabilitation, and in some cases are also active in preventative care and wellness.
  • Trauma - Individuals who have been injured in a motor vehicle accident will have suffered major trauma such as head, back and neck injuries, and will require acute rehabilitative care from a PTA in a hospital scenario.
  • Surgery - Patients who are recovering from major surgery often require the services of a Physical Therapy Assistant.
  • Medical Condition - Patients recovering from or with ongoing medical conditions such as a stroke, a heart attack, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, arthritis, or a traumatic injury of another kind. This includes balance problems caused by inner-ear infections.
  • Illness - Physical therapy is indicated for those who suffer from Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, and Lou Gehrig's disease.
  • Injury - A PTA will also assist those who have suffered sports injuries, sprains/strains and fractures, or other injuries such as knee or hip injuries.
  • Mobility - A Physical Therapy Assistant will help with training exercises for mobility, strength and coordination.
  • Ambulatory - PTAs also give instruction and training for ambulatory activities such as walking with walkers, canes, or crutches.
  • Monitoring - A PTA may also monitor changes in a patient's performance and improvement as a result of therapy.
  • Massage - A PTA also gives massages and uses physical agents and electrotherapy by means of electrical stimulation and ultrasound.

A Physical Therapy Assistant also acts as a go-between for the physical therapist and the patient regarding the patient's condition, the type of treatment they are getting and whether it is working or not.

Employment

A Physical Therapy Assistant provides healthcare services to patients of all ages in various types of facilities:

  • Hospitals - Patients who are recovering from major surgery, major illnesses, major injuries or trauma all benefit from physical therapy. The aim of the therapy in these cases is to get the patient well enough to be discharged.
  • Inpatient rehabilitation facilities - Physical Therapy Assistants provide care in these facilities, which can be in both acute and sub-acute settings to patients requiring intensive therapy for periods of in excess of three hours daily.
  • Homes - PTAs also provide healthcare to patients in their homes or in another home-setting where they reside such as a nursing home, community hospital, or other type of communal-living venues.
  • Sports Centres - One of the biggest fields for physical therapy is the world of sport and the inevitable sports-related injuries. PTAs help sportsmen and women recover from injuries, alleviate pain, or recover from surgical procedures such as dislocations, knee-replacements, knee injuries, or broken bones.
  • Nursing Homes - Age-related illnesses and problems such as osteoporosis, incontinence, and other conditions which impair or limit mobility such as partial paralysis as the result of a stroke are treated by PTAs.
  • Hospice - About the only thing that can be done for those in a hospice is to make them as comfortable and pain-free as possible, which is where the PTA comes in. Many patients in a hospice are bedridden and therefore benefit from the services of a Physical Therapy Assistant to boost muscle-mass and help with circulation.
  • Children - Physical Therapy Assistants are often called in to work with children who have mobility problems, developmental issues, and also with youngsters who may have birth defects which impair them physically.

Although about 72% of Physical Therapy Assistants work in hospitals or private physical therapy practices, PTAs also work in schools, extended-care facilities, individual companies, large corporations, education or research centres and various government facilities.

Physical Therapy Assistant Requirements

If you are asking the question "What is PTA/Physical Therapy Assistant?" then you are obviously thinking about getting into physical therapy as a career. Before you make a final decision though, there are a few facts you need to know regarding the requirements for a PTA.

Personality Traits

  • You need to have strong interpersonal skills and a caring nature.
  • You need to be quite fit and strong, as you will do a lot of kneeling, stretching, lifting, moving, etcetera.
  • You need to be sports-minded and fairly physically active.
  • You need to want to become a Physical Therapy Assistant for the satisfaction of helping others, as it is not a career in which you will become rich and famous.
  • You should be detail oriented and well-organized.
  • You need to be a team-player and able to take direction.

Educational Requirements

Physical Therapy Assistant

  • To work as a Physical Therapy Assistant you need to get a two-year associate degree from an accredited PTA program.
  • The PTA program is offered by colleges, community colleges, technical colleges, and universities.
  • Most states require that you pass the national examination for licensing/certification/regulation.
  • A strong background in health, art, chemistry, the social sciences, biology, and physics helps.

Licensure

  • Most states and the District of Columbia require PTAs to be licensed, registered, or certified.
  • Those states which require licensure stipulate as to specific education, which must be at an accredited education institution. There are more than 250 accredited physical therapy assistant programs.
  • You will need to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam, which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.
  • Some states may require you to pass an additional state exam, CPR and First Aid certification, and that you complete a minimum amount of hours doing field-work.
  • Some states require continuing education credits in order to maintain licensure.

Some physical therapist assistants continue to improve on their skills and their knowledge in various clinical disciplines after graduation, which is a very wise thing for any graduate to do. The American Physical Therapy Association recognizes PTAs who have gained additional skills in integumentary, neuromuscular, pediatric, geriatric, musculoskeletal, and cardiopulmonary physical therapy.

A Physical Therapy Assistant can also advance in non-clinical areas like administrative positions, such as organizing the assistants in a big physical therapy practice, or acting as the director for a specific department. PTAs can also pursue a career as an educator at an accredited PTA Academic Program.

How To Become A Physical Therapy Assistant

As most states require that a Physical Therapy Assistant be licensed, it means that they have to pass an associate degree at an accredited institution such as a college, community college or university.

1. Training, Advancement And Other Qualifications

  • Post-secondary Physical Therapy Assistant programs are accredited by the American Physical Therapy Association’s Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.
  • Programs are divided between academic studies and fieldwork in the form of hands-on clinical experience.
  • Academic coursework includes English, psychology, anatomy and physiology, and algebra.
  • Clinical work includes field experience in treatment centres and certifications in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and other first aid.
  • Clinical experience is essential for the PTA to understand what the responsibilities of a Physical Therapy Assistant are.
  • Physical Therapy Assistants may choose to specialize in a specific clinical field.
  • The American Physical Therapy Association certifies physical therapist specialists in 7 areas including pediatric, neuromuscular, aquatic, and cardiovascular physical therapy.
  • To be eligible for specialty certification, you need to be an APTA member who has substantial continuing education credits and at least 5 years working experience. Letters of reference and proof of your contribution to the profession must be submitted.

2. Source An Accredited Education Program

  • Every PTA is required to complete a 2-year associate's degree program at an accredited institution.
  • You can find one of the approximately 276 Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education accredited programs on the CAPTE website.
  • You can contact any of the institutions and request their accreditation information and graduate employee statistics, which will let you know whether they are a reputable institution or not.

3. Earn Your Associate's Degree

  • The PTA associate degree programs consist of 5 semesters.
  • The program focuses on clinical physical therapy education.
  • The curriculum consists mostly of classroom and laboratory instruction.
  • Courses include medical terminology, pathology, kinesiology, anatomy, therapy exercises and physical therapy assistance techniques.
  • Students must also complete approximately 16 weeks of practical work in a clinic.

4. Obtain Your Licensure

  • The only states which do not require a Physical Therapy Assistant to obtain state licensure or certification are Hawaii and Colorado.
  • Although eligibility is different in many states, most state physical therapy regulatory boards require a PTA to have completed an accredited associate degree program and either a state-administered exam or the National Physical Therapy Exam.
  • Most states also require a PTA to earn continuing education credits on a regular basis in order to maintain certification.

Online/Distance Education Programs

There are also a few distance education Physical Therapy Assistant programs offered by some institutions.

  • These programs are done via hybrid or low-residency programs.
  • Hybrid programs mean that the academic part of the program is done online but students are also required to spend some time on campus doing field examinations and lab reviews.
  • The online curriculum is geared towards a two-year full-time or three-year part-time schedule.
  • The curriculum consists of general liberal arts electives in maths and English, and major specific courses in psychology, physiology, human anatomy and biology.
  • Core requirements include clinical neurology and path physiology.
  • The hands-on courses like introductory lab courses and the introduction to physical therapist practice course are done on-campus.
  • Students are also mandated to complete a clinical residency program, which normally occurs during the last semester of their studies.
  • Successful completion of the program qualifies students for the state-licensing exam.

Physical Therapy Assistant Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in the Physical Therapy Assistant arena is set to grow by leaps and bounds in the 2008-2018 decade. At a 35% growth-rate this is much quicker than average for any other occupation.

The high growth-rate can be attributed to a few factors:

  • Changes to restrictions - Due to changes to restrictions on reimbursement for physical therapy services, third-party payers have increased patient access to physical therapy services. This has increased demand.
  • The elderly population is endemically vulnerable to debilitating and chronic conditions which require therapeutic services. These patients often require additional assistance in their treatment, and the role that PTAs provide is crucial for them.
  • The baby-boomers are also getting to the age where heart-attacks and strokes are a big threat, which is creating a higher demand for physical and cardiac rehabilitation.
  • Developments in technology and medicine are responsible for an increased percentage of newborns with birth defects and trauma victims surviving.
  • The federally mandated Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees that students will have access to services from physical therapists and this will continue to provide job opportunities for therapists, ergo for PTAs too.

Physical Therapy Assistant - Earnings

Physical Therapy Assistants do a very important and very rewarding job, where they make a huge difference in people's lives every day. This hands-on job comes with opportunities for many diverse specialties and a dynamic list of responsibilities. Although most PTAs do not do this job for the money, one cannot live on job satisfaction, so the physical therapy assistant salary rate is also important.

According to the figures released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in their Occupational Employment Survey, median annual wages of physical therapy assistants was $49,810, which showed an increase from the previous year, and this figure is expected to rise.

Earnings depend on various factors, including the area of specialty of the Physical Therapy Assistant, in which industry they work, and geographical location.

The top paying work setting for Physical Therapy Assistants is the home health care services industry.

Top paying industries for the Physical Therapy Assistant

Industry Employment Hourly Pay Annual Pay
Home Health Care Services 5,200 $28.62 $59,520 Management of Companies and Enterprises 200 $28.11 $58,460 Employment Services 770 $27.38 $56,950 Nursing Care Facilities 7,440 $25.80 $53,660 Community Care Facilities for the Elderly 650 $25.46 $52,970

 

Privately owned health practitioner offices and clinics employ the most PTAs, followed by hospitals.

Industries with the highest levels of Physical Therapy Assistant employment

Industry Employment % of Employment Hourly Pay
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals 16,030 0.31 $23.03 Home Health Care Services 5,200 0.49 $28.62 Nursing Care Facilities 7,440 0.45 $25.80 Offices of Physicians 2,910 0.13 $22.34 Offices of Other Halth Practitioners 26,800 4.03 $23.24

 

Certain states salaries are more than others for the physical therapy services, with Texas leading the charge. Below are some of the top paying states, showing the annual and hourly wage.

Top paying States for Physical Therapy Assistants

State Employment Hourly Pay Annual Pay
Texas 4,250 $30.02 $62,440 California 4,460 $27.77 $57,760 Connecticut 440 $27.01 $56,180 Florida 3,740 $26.58 $55,280 Nevada 320 $26.34 $54,800

 

A Licensed Physical Therapy Assistant is a growing career with a vast amount of options for specialties. The salary, the people one works with and the satisfaction that one gets from helping people to regain their health and their independence makes it a great career-choice for those who are a bit physically inclined, very fit, flexible, love a challenge and are empathic by nature.

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