Physical therapist assistants, sometimes called PTAs, and physical therapist aides work under the direction and supervision of physical therapists. They help patients who are recovering from injuries and illnesses to regain movement and manage pain.

Physical therapist assistants are involved in the direct care of patients.

Physical therapist aides often have tasks that are indirectly related to patient care, such as cleaning and setting up the treatment area, moving patients, and doing clerical duties.

Duties

Physical therapist assistants typically do the following:

  • Observe patients before, during, and after therapy, noting the patient’s status and reporting it to a physical therapist
  • Help patients do specific exercises as part of the plan of care
  • Treat patients using a variety of techniques, such as massage and stretching
  • Use devices and equipment, such as walkers, to help patients
  • Educate patients and family members about what to do after treatment

Under the direction and supervision of physical therapists, physical therapist assistants treat patients through exercise, massage, gait and balance training, and other therapeutic interventions. They record patients’ progress and report the results of each treatment to the physical therapist.

Physical therapist aides typically do the following:

  • Clean treatment areas and set up therapy equipment
  • Wash linens
  • Help patients move to or from a therapy area
  • Do clerical tasks, such as answering phones and scheduling patients

Physical therapist aides are supervised by physical therapists or physical therapist assistants. The tasks that physical therapist aides are allowed to do vary by state. They usually are responsible for keeping the treatment area clean and organized, preparing for each patient’s therapy, and helping patients as needed in moving to or from a treatment area. In addition, aides do a variety of clerical tasks, such as ordering supplies, scheduling treatment sessions, and completing insurance forms.

Work Environment

Physical therapist aides held about 49,800 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of physical therapist aides were as follows:

Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists                         56%
Hospitals; state, local, and private 25
Offices of physicians 6
Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) 4
Government 1

Physical therapist assistants held about 98,400 jobs in 2018. The largest employers of physical therapist assistants were as follows:

Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists                         45%
Hospitals; state, local, and private 23
Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) 10
Home healthcare services 8
Offices of physicians 5

Physical therapist assistants and aides are frequently on their feet and moving as they set up equipment and help and treat patients. Because they must often lift and move patients, they are vulnerable to back injuries. Assistants and aides can limit these risks by using proper techniques when they work with patients.

Work Schedules

Most physical therapist assistants and aides work full time, although part time work is common. Some work nights and weekends because many physical therapy offices and clinics have extended hours to accommodate patients’ schedules.

Education and Training

Physical therapist assistants entering the occupation typically need an associate’s degree from an accredited program and a license or certification. Physical therapist aides usually need a high school diploma or equivalent and on-the-job training.

Education and Training

All states require physical therapist assistants to have an associate’s degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. Programs typically last about 2 years and include coursework in subjects such as anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology. Assistants also gain hands-on experience during supervised clinical work.

Physical therapist aides typically need a high school diploma or equivalent. They also usually need on-the-job training that can last from about one week to one month.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All states require physical therapist assistants to be licensed or certified. Licensure typically requires graduation from an accredited physical therapist assistant program and passing the National Physical Therapy Exam for physical therapist assistants. The exam is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Some states require that applicants pass an exam on the state’s laws regulating the practice of physical therapy assistants, undergo a criminal background check, and be at least 18 years old. Physical therapist assistants also may need to take continuing education courses to keep their license. Check with your state board for specific licensing requirements.

Additionally, physical therapy assistants may earn certifications in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), basic life support (BLS), or other first-aid skills.

States do not require physical therapist aides to be licensed.

Personality and Interests

Physical therapist assistants typically have an interest in the Building, Thinking and Helping interest areas, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things. The Thinking interest area indicates a focus on researching, investigating, and increasing the understanding of natural laws. The Helping interest area indicates a focus on assisting, serving, counseling, or teaching other people.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building or Thinking or Helping interest which might fit with a career as a physical therapist assistant, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Physical therapist assistants should also possess the following specific qualities:

Compassion. Physical therapist assistants and aides should enjoy helping people. They work with people who are in pain, and they must have empathy to help their patients.

Detail oriented. Like other healthcare professionals, physical therapist assistants and aides should be organized and have a keen eye for detail. They must keep accurate records and follow written and verbal instructions carefully to ensure quality care.

Dexterity. Physical therapist assistants should be comfortable using their hands to provide manual therapy and therapeutic exercises. Aides should also be comfortable working with their hands to set up equipment and prepare treatment areas.

Interpersonal skills. Physical therapist assistants and aides spend much of their time interacting with clients and therefore should be courteous and friendly.

Physical stamina. Physical therapist assistants and aides are frequently on their feet and moving as they work with their patients. They must often kneel, stoop, bend, and stand for long periods. They should enjoy physical activity.

Pay

The median annual wage for physical therapist aides was $27,000 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $20,310, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $39,740.

The median annual wage for physical therapist assistants was $58,790 in May 2019. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $33,450, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $80,840.

In May 2019, the median annual wages for physical therapist aides in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) $34,490
Hospitals; state, local, and private 29,570
Offices of physicians 28,430
Government 28,090
Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists                                   25,600

In May 2019, the median annual wages for physical therapist assistants in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) $66,840
Home healthcare services 63,200
Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists                                    57,520
Hospitals; state, local, and private 57,140
Offices of physicians 55,490

Most physical therapist assistants and aides work full time, although part time work is common. Some work nights and weekends because many physical therapy offices and clinics have extended hours to accommodate patients’ schedules.

Job Outlook

Employment of physical therapist assistants is projected to grow 27 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations. Employment of physical therapist aides is projected to grow 23 percent from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Demand for physical therapy is expected to increase in response to the health needs of an aging population, particularly the large baby-boom generation. This group is staying more active later in life than previous generations did. However, many baby boomers also are entering the prime age for heart attacks, strokes, and mobility-related injuries, increasing the demand for physical therapy needed for rehabilitation.

In addition, more physical therapist assistants and aides will be needed to help patients maintain their mobility and manage the effects of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and obesity. Moreover, medical and technological developments should permit an increased number of trauma victims and newborns with birth defects to survive, creating added demand for therapy and rehabilitative services.

Physical therapists are expected to rely on physical therapist assistants, particularly in long-term care environments, in order to reduce the cost of physical therapy services. After the physical therapist has evaluated a patient and designed a plan of care, the assistant provides many parts of the treatment, as directed by the therapist.

Job Prospects

About 16,500 openings for physical therapist assistants and 8,000 openings for physical therapist aides are projected each year, on average, over the decade.

Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who exit the labor force, such as to retire, and from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations.

Job opportunities should be good in settings where the aging population is most often treated, such as skilled-nursing homes, home health, and outpatient orthopedic facilities.  Physical therapist aides with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree may have better prospects than will those without one, as some employers prefer to hire candidates who have a degree.

For More Information

For more information about physical therapist assistants, visit

American Physical Therapy Association

For a list of schools offering accredited programs, visit

Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education

For more information about state licensing requirements and about the National Physical Therapy Exam, visit

Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy

CareerOneStop

For a career video on physical therapist assistants and aides, visit

Physical therapists assistants and aides

 

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