Physical Therapy Assistant Schools
Many people interested in the field of healthcare want to contribute to the health and well-being of others but can’t (or don’t want to) commit to the rigors and years of medical school or nursing programs. If that sounds like you, then the field of physical therapy may offer a good alternative.
Physical therapy assistants (PTAs) support physical therapists in helping patients (clients) reduce pain and improve or restore mobility. In many cases therapy can be used instead of surgery and can reduce the need for prescription medications that may have unwanted side effects.
On this page, you’ll learn about:
- What a physical therapist assistant does
- How much a physical therapist assistant earns
- The career outlook for physical therapist assistants
- How to become a physical therapist assistant
- Physical therapist assistant schools
- Resources for physical therapy assistants
What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant Do?
Physical therapist assistants work under the direction and supervision of physical therapists to help people who are recovering from injuries, illnesses, and surgeries. The main goals are to restore function, improve mobility, and manage pain.
The physical therapist first works with the patient to establish a plan of care that includes short- and long-term functional goals. Physical therapist assistants then help the physical therapist and patient implement and monitor the plan.
Specific Duties of a Physical Therapist Assistant
Physical therapist assistants engage in a variety of tasks that may vary depending on the physical therapist they are working with and the setting they are working in. Duties of a physical therapist assistant may include things such as:
- Observing patients before, during, and after therapy
- Recording patient responses to specific techniques and overall patient status
- Reporting progress and observations to the physical therapist
- Helping patients do the exercises included in their plan of care
- Treating or guiding patients using prescribed stretching, massage, gait and balance training, motor learning and development, and other techniques
- Instructing patients regarding the use of walkers, crutches, canes, and other devices and equipment as required
- Educating patients and family members about after-treatment care, stressing the importance of following the recommended fitness and wellness programs
- Assisting with clerical and administrative activities such as billing and coding
Key Abilities and Characteristics of a Physical Therapist Assistant
Are you a good fit for the job of physical therapist assistant? Following are some of the characteristics and abilities that can help you succeed in this career:
- Are you compassionate? You may be working with people who are in pain or who are frustrated that they can’t do the things they used to do. Having compassion for their situation may help you work with them more effectively.
- Do you have an interest in science? Some of the courses that you might take in a physical therapist assistant program are science based. Refer to the How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant section below.
- Are you in good shape? Although you don’t have to be a marathon runner or professional weight lifter to become a PTA, it is helpful for you to have a basic level of fitness. Some of your duties may include lifting and moving patients or demonstrating exercises, and it is possible that you will be on your feet during much of the day.
- Do you have the ability to notice small details? One of your jobs may be to observe and record patient progress. To do this, you need to be able to notice small changes, since a patient’s progress can be slow and difficult to document.
- Do you like working with people and building relationships? As a PTA, you may work one-on-one with patients—and often the same patients over time. Being able to build a strong relationship with a patient can help you and the patient work well together and possibly aid in the healing process.
PTAs work in a variety of settings. Some of these are inpatient and some are outpatient. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the five largest employers of physical therapist assistants are:
- Physical therapy offices (45%)
- Hospitals (23%)
- Skilled nursing facilities (11%)
- Home healthcare services (8%)
- Physicians’ offices (5%)
Most PTAs work full time. Some night and weekend work may be required, since many physical therapy facilities offer extended hours in order to accommodate patients’ schedules.
Physical Therapy Assistant Salary and Career Outlook
Helping patients regain range of motion and manage pain isn’t always easy, but the outlook for jobs is very good, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and the American Physical Therapist Association (APTA). There’s a high demand for physical therapist assistants, and employment in this career is expected to grow by 40% from 2014 to 2024—which is much faster than the average for all other occupations.
The BLS reports that the top five states with the highest levels of employment for PTAs are:
The need for PTAs is expected to continue to increase as the U.S. population ages and the demand for physical therapy services grows.
Salary for PT Assistants
According to the BLS, in May 2017 salaries for physical therapy assistants ranged from less than $35,930 to more than $79,380. The median annual wage for physical therapist assistants was $57,430. In other words, half the PTAs in the United States earned more than that amount and half earned less.
The BLS reported that as of 2017, the states with the highest average salaries for physical therapist assistants were:
- Texas, with a mean annual salary of $70,450 (or $33.87/hour)
- New Jersey, with a mean annual salary of $67,990 (or $32.69/hour)
- Nevada, with a mean annual salary of $63,230 (or $30.40/hour)
- Florida, with a mean annual salary of $62,710 (or $30.15/hour)
- Massachusetts, with a mean annual salary of $62,400 (or $30.00/hour)
How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant
Step 1: Earn Your Associate Degree
In most states, in order to practice as a physical therapy assistant you will need to get an associate degree. Physical therapy assistant programs teach you to perform various treatment interventions; to properly collect, understand, and report data; and to evaluate and monitor patient responses to interventions in an ethical, safe, legal, and effective manner. You’ll also learn to communicate effectively with patients, their families, members of the care team, and other health care providers.
Some of the courses you might take include general education classes, physical therapy courses, anatomy, physiology, exercise physiology, kinesiology, behavioral sciences, and communications. You can expect a mix of classroom, lab, and clinical studies, with an average of approximately 16 weeks of clinical experience.
Step 2: Become Licensed
Once you have your degree, you will need to become licensed. Most states require licensing or certification in order to work as a PTA. They also require you to take a national licensing exam, the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.
Physical Therapy Assistant Schools
As you evaluate physical therapy assistant schools, make sure they offer a CAPTE-accredited program. The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) is the only recognized accrediting agency for PTA education. You won’t be able to sit the licensing exam unless you graduate from a CAPTE-accredited program.
The APTA provides a directory of PTA education schools by state.
Online Physical Therapy Assistant Programs
Although there are no purely online programs for becoming a physical therapy assistant, some CAPTE-accredited programs offer hybrid programs in which you can take part of their curriculum online. You can watch video lectures online and often take quizzes and tests online. However, labs must be taken on the school campus. Because of this, the online programs are not considered to be true “distance learning” programs; they simply offer the option of taking some courses online rather than on-campus.
Still, there are advantages of hybrid courses.
- They provide more flexibility. The time spent in the classroom is considerably less than in traditional programs, which allows students to balance their studies with work or other commitments.
- Students can re-watch lectures, which can improve their performance in labs and overall.
- They are a good fit for students who like to take their time processing information and do not like the distraction of other students asking questions or engaging in discussion.
However, hybrid courses aren’t right for everyone. When you take classes online, you’re working independently, which means you need to be self-directed, motivated, and disciplined. You also need to have good time-management still, since you will need to fit online courses into your current schedule. You should try to make an honest assessment of yourself to determine whether hybrid programs are for you.
Career Advancement for Physical Therapy Assistants
There are several ways physical therapists can continue their education and advance their career.
One way is to choose a particular specialty to focus on. Specializing in a discipline can give you the opportunity to work in the areas of physical therapy that most interest you.
In 2009, the APTA developed the Advanced Proficiency Pathways (APP) Program for physical therapy assistants. APP programs are post-graduation curricula designed to increase the participants’ knowledge and skill in a chosen area of physical therapy. Content areas include:
- Acute care
- Cardiovascular and pulmonary
- Wound management
The APP program includes general courses, courses related to the specialty, and mentored clinical experiences.
In addition, some PTAs have used work experience and mentoring to help them learn a specialty. For example, one PTA became skilled in neuromuscular physical therapy techniques through the mentoring of a physical therapist who specialized in this area.
Transition to Another Career
Another way to advance your career is to use your associate degree and work experience as stepping stones to another career. Here are some examples:
- Continue your education and go on to become a physical therapist
- Continue your education in a related field to become a practitioner in that field; for example, you might become a chiropractor, exercise physiologist, acupuncturist, or certified athletic trainer
- Become a teacher; the APTA offers a Credentialed Clinical Instructor Program (CCIP) that prepares students for becoming teachers
Resources for Physical Therapy Assistants
Belonging to professional organizations is an important part of any career. Professional organizations help you keep up with current trends in your industry and are a great source of information. They offer professional development opportunities and give you the chance to network and make connections with others in your field.
In addition, potential employers and clients appreciate working with a professional. Belonging to, and being active in, an industry association is evidence of your commitment to your profession.
For your convenience, here are a few resources:
The American Physical Therapy Association is a U.S.-based, individual membership professional organization. It has more than 100,000 members, including physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, and students of physical therapy. APTA also has state chapters, special interest groups, and blogs.
- State chapters: State chapters offer a variety of events, professional development activities, and opportunities to meet and interact with members in your geographic area.
- Special Interest Groups (SIGs): There are SIGs available for those interested in acute care, aquatics, geriatrics, hand therapy, neurology, sports, and more.
- The Pulse: The APTA provides The Pulse, a blog that offers articles of interest for students and those working in the field of physical therapy.
This international organization represents physical therapy and physical therapist assistants around the world.
Webpt.com is a resource that aggregates multiple physical therapy blogs to make it easy to find items of interest.
Here you’ll find a collection of articles that provide clinical advice and helpful professional information.
If a career as a physical therapy assistant sounds great to you, take the first step by connecting to a school.