If you're looking for a rewarding career in a booming industry, look no further than physical therapy assisting. Helping injured, sick and disabled people get back on their feet can give you a sense of pride in your work, and just seven other careers in the country are projected to be in higher demand over the next several years.
But what exactly do physical therapy assistants do? How long is physical therapy assistant school? What can you expect from a physical therapy assistant salary? We'll take some time to dig into these questions and deliver some insights through data from sources like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Read on to learn how to become a physical therapy assistant and find out more about how the job can make a difference in people's lives.
What do physical therapy assistants do?
Known in the industry as PTAs, physical therapy assistants work under the supervision of licensed physical therapists to help patients regain motor skills and manage pain. Although their specific duties can depend on the patient they're working with, here's a list of general responsibilities that most physical therapy assistant jobs have in common:
- Observing patients during, before and after therapy to assess their progress
- Assisting patients with exercises and other therapies prescribed by a physical therapist
- Using mobility devices and other equipment to help patients rehabilitate
- Educating patients and their families about ways they can help on their own
Most physical therapy assistants work in the offices of licensed physical therapists, but around 34 percent of those employed in 2016 held positions in hospitals or skilled nursing facilities. They often lift or move patients and may spend long hours on their feet, so it can help to be in good physical shape.
How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant
States have the power to set their own physical therapy assistant education requirements, but there's nowhere in the U.S. that doesn't require at least an associate degree. Here's a short list of steps you can take while you're working toward a job as a PTA:
- Earn your high school diploma or equivalency degree
- Research physical therapy assistant programs and choose one that works with your schedule
- Take courses in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology and clinical practice
- Consider helpful credentials like first aid, basic life support and CPR
- Obtain physical therapy assistant certification in your state and begin your job search
The curriculum followed in physical therapy assistant schools may vary from institution to institution, but most programs include courses that cover subjects like these:
- Anatomy and physiology
- Patient assessment
- Therapeutic exercise
- Rehabilitation devices
- Motor development
- Applied kinesiology
- Clinical practice
- Data collection
Physical therapy assistant degree programs
You have a couple of different options for physical therapy assistant education. They're more commonly available at community colleges or vocational schools than at four-year institutions, but some universities may offer one of the following at an extension campus:
- Associate degree. The associate degree is far and away the most common form of education held by working physical therapy assistants. They typically take two years of full-time study to complete, although some institutions may offer intensive accelerated plans or part-time programs on longer time scales.
- Bachelor's degree. Students may also opt to go with a four-year degree before heading out into the workforce, although most employers don't require it. Often, students in physical therapy assistant bachelor's programs are already working as PTAs and want to enhance their skills to better serve their clients.
Physical therapy assistant schools online
There are practical components to an associate degree in physical therapy assisting that can't be effectively modeled in the virtual classroom, but that doesn't mean you're locked out of distance education all together. Many physical therapy schools offer online courses in psychology, communications, physics and other general education subjects that are relevant to the degree you're seeking.
That said, a handful of physical therapy assistant schools make online bachelor's degrees available for established PTAs. If your initial physical therapy assistant education is complete and you're looking to go deeper, an online degree can be a great option.
Physical therapy assistant certification and licensure
Licensure of PTAs is handled by individual state regulatory boards, but most states require that you complete an accredited physical therapy assisting program and pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). The NPTE for physical therapy assistants is a four-hour assessment scored on a range between 200 and 800. A passing score of 600 must be achieved to qualify for a license.
Most states also require license applicants to undergo a criminal background check and to be at least 18 years of age. Some states may conduct state-specific exams on the laws and regulations relevant to physical therapy assisting. Don't forget to check with your state board and find out whether continuing education is necessary to maintain your licensed status.
Career advancement options for physical therapy assistants
Earning a bachelor's degree and demonstrating high-level competence can help you land jobs that come with greater responsibility and increased pay. Once you have your bachelor's and a few more years of experience, your best bet for advancement is to shop around for full-fledged Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs at accredited universities.
Most DPT programs can be completed in around three years of full-time study. If you haven't completed an official pre-physical therapy (pre-PT) program as an undergraduate, you may need to fulfill some prerequisite course requirements before you can enroll.
Skills and abilities for physical therapy assistants
Physical therapy assisting is a demanding but rewarding field, and certain skills or abilities can make it easier for you to perform its necessary duties on a day to day basis. The Occupational Information Network (O*NET) lists these five among the top skills for aspiring PTAs:
- Active listening is highly valuable, both when taking instruction from a supervising therapist and when paying close attention to clients as they describe how they feel
- Service orientation, or the tendency to actively seek ways to help people, can help you go above and beyond for your clients and your boss
- Trunk strength is a must for most PTAs, since many clients with limited mobility may require that you lift them, hold them up or otherwise assist them physically
- Speech clarity can make a big difference to a client's comfort level, particularly if you have to give them instructions while they're performing a difficult task or exercise
- Monitoring small changes in clients' performance can help you write thorough reports on their progress and help your therapist design the best treatment plan possible
Physical Therapy Assistant Salary and Career Outlook
The state where you live and the amount of experience you have on the job can influence the range of salaries available to you, but the national averages still provide a fair picture of what to expect. Take a look at this quick table of BLS data on physical therapy assistant salary estimates and job outlook projections:
|Career||Total Employment||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Physical Therapist Assistants||94,250||$57,750||30.8%|
Professional Resources for Physical Therapy Assistants
Membership in a professional organization can bring numerous benefits to a physical therapy assistant career, particularly in terms of access to continuing education. Here's a quick primer on the type of organizations available to PTAs around the country:
- The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) conducts national advocacy on behalf of the physical therapy profession and works to help practitioners deliver the best care they possibly can. Membership benefits include access to a massive online resource center and discounts of up to 40 percent on continuing education units and conference attendance.
- Regional organizations like the Florida Physical Therapy Association (FPTA) can also be great options. Advocacy is also needed at the state level, and it can be beneficial to focus some of your attention on local matters. Many state organizations mirror the APTA's "Career Starter" dues structure, which offers decreasing yearly discounts to PTAs less than four years out of school.
- Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, accessed April 30, 2019: Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm; Fastest Growing Occupations, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/fastest-growing.htm; Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapy-assistants-and-aides.htm; Occupational Therapists, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm; Medical Assistants, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/medical-assistants.htm; Registered Nurses, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm;
- School pages, accessed April 30, 2019: Physical Therapist Assistant Degree, Milwaukee Area Technical College, http://www.matc.edu/student/offerings/2018-2019/degrees/physical_therapist_assistant.cfm; Physical Therapist Assistant Associates Degree, California University of Pennsylvania, https://www.calu.edu/academics/undergraduate/associate/physical-therapist-assistant/index.aspx; Physical Therapist Assistant Associate Degree Program, New England Institute of Technology, https://www.neit.edu/Programs/Associate-Degree-Programs/Health-Sciences/Physical-Therapist-Assistant; Physical Therapy Assistant (PTA) School, ECPI University, https://www.ecpi.edu/programs/physical-therapy-associate-degree; Physical Therapist Assistant Curriculum, Mt. Hood Community College, https://www.mhcc.edu/PTACurriculum/; Online BS Physical Therapist Assistant Degree Program, Pima Medical Institute, https://pmi.edu/programs/bachelors/bachelor-of-science-physical-therapist-assistant; Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapist Assistant, Clarkson College, https://www.clarksoncollege.edu/physical-therapist-assistant/program-options/bachelor-of-science-in-physical-therapist-assistant/; Physical Therapy DPT, Temple University, https://www.temple.edu/academics/degree-programs/physical-therapy-dpt-hp-phth-dpt; DPT Frequently Asked Questions, Temple University, https://cph.temple.edu/pt/degree-programs/dpt-frequently-asked-questions; Curriculum, Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Program, The College of St. Scholastica, http://www.css.edu/graduate/masters-doctoral-and-professional-programs/areas-of-study/doctor-of-physical-therapy-(dpt)/curriculum.html;
- The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, accessed April 30, 2019: Taking the Examination, http://www.fsbpt.org/FreeResources/NPTECandidateHandbook/TakingtheExamination.aspx; Examination Results and Scoring, https://www.fsbpt.org/FreeResources/NPTECandidateHandbook/ExaminationResultsandScoring.aspx;
- Physical Therapist Assistants, Occupational Information Network, accessed April 30, 2019, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/31-2021.00
- Professional association pages, accessed April 30, 2019: Licensure, American Physical Therapy Association, https://www.apta.org/Licensure/; APTa Membership Benefits and Value, American Physical Therapy Association, http://www.apta.org/Benefits/; Join Today, Florida Physical Therapy Association, https://www.fpta.org/page/406;