Physical therapist assistants (also called PTAs) help care for patients under the direction of a physical therapist (PT). They may help patients through a variety of therapeutic methods, including ultrasound, electrical stimulation and massage. They offer exercise and instruction in areas such as balance and walking with or without the use of adaptive equipment. Because physical therapist assistants work under the supervision of physical therapists, they often document patient responses and report treatment results to the physical therapist.
Day in the Life of a Physical Therapist Assistant
On the job, physical therapist assistants have many responsibilities, but most duties relate to providing direct relief and therapy to patients under the supervision of a physical therapist. On a typical day, a PTA may:
- Apply hot or cold compresses to promote healing
- Use ultrasound treatments to give a patient relief
- Demonstrate — and help patients learn to perform — specific exercises as part of a treatment plan
- Show patients how to use various types of equipment, including wheelchairs, walkers and canes
- Provide clear instructions to patients so that they understand what they should be doing at home
- Complete paperwork for insurance claims and patient files
The size of the clinic where a PTA works may also influence the duties they perform. In a small clinic, a PTA may do most of the tasks listed above, and within normal business hours. A large clinic, by contrast, might employ several PTAs and offer extended hours for patients. A large clinic might have staff other than PTAs to complete paperwork, but PTAs may need to work evenings and weekends.
Important Characteristics for Physical Therapist Assistants
As with all health care professions, a true desire to help patients get better is key. To succeed as a physical therapy assistant, you must also enjoy working with people, even though they are in pain. You should be able to work well as a member of a team, be able to take direction, remain highly organized and pay attention to detail.
Typical Steps for Becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant
Physical therapy assistant education is a combination of formal education and on-the-job training. You'll want to take the following steps to become a PTA:
- Get a high school diploma. Take classes in health sciences, especially anatomy, biology and exercise science, in high school if possible. (Or, take classes in these subjects at your local university or community college before jumping into a PTA program.)
- Earn a physical therapy assistant degree. Most physical therapist assistant jobs require an associate degree in physical therapy assistance from a program accredited by The American Physical Therapy Association's Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. This usually takes two years.
- Earn your license. While holding a license is not required to work as a physical therapy assistant, most states do require that all aspiring PTAs graduate from an accredited institution and pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). Some states require a state license as well as continuing education studies. Check with the licensing board in your state for detailed requirements.
Beyond the physical therapy assistant degrees available, you can pursue the development of additional skills through the American Physical Therapy Association — skills that relate to a variety of specializations, including the following:
After you have worked as a physical therapy assistant for several years, you might be able to move up to an administrative position or become an instructor in a physical therapy assistant program.
Other ways to advance your career include:
- Find a mentor who inspires you. Ideally, the physical therapist you work with should be your mentor.
- Join a professional association such as a local chapter of the American Physical Therapy Association.
- Pursue continuing education to stay abreast of new discoveries and treatments in the field.
- Read journals, magazines and websites about physical therapy.