Physical therapist assistants and aides

What Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides Do

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 regain movement and manage pain. Physical therapist assistants are involved in the direct care of patients. Physical therapist aides often do tasks that are indirectly related to patient care, such as cleaning and setting up the treatment area, moving patients, and performing clerical duties.

Duties

Physical therapist assistants typically do the following:

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

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 assistants help physical therapists provide care to patients. Under the direction and supervision of physical therapists, they give therapy through exercise, massage, gait and balance training, and therapeutic modalities, such as electrical stimulation and ultrasound. Physical therapist assistants record patients’ progress and report the results of each treatment to the physical therapist.

Physical therapist aides work under the direct supervision of a physical therapist or physical therapist assistant. They usually are responsible for keeping the treatment area clean and organized, and preparing for each patient's therapy. They also help patients who need assistance moving to or from a treatment area. In addition, aides do a variety of clerical tasks, such as ordering supplies, scheduling treatment sessions, and filling out insurance forms. The types of tasks that physical therapist aides are allowed to perform vary by state. Contact your state licensing board for more information.

How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant or Aide

Most states require physical therapist assistants to have an associate’s degree from an accredited physical therapist program. Physical therapist aides usually have a high school diploma and get on-the-job training.

Education and Training

Most states require physical therapist assistants to have an associate’s degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant program. In 2012 the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education accredited 298 associate’s degree programs for physical therapist assistants.

Programs typically last about 2 years, and include both classroom study and clinical experience. PTA programs usually include courses in algebra, English, anatomy, physiology, and psychology. Assistants gain hands-on experience in treatment centers. They may also earn certifications in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and other first-aid skills. Some programs offer evening classes.

Physical therapist aides typically have a high school diploma or the equivalent. They usually gain clinical experience through on-the-job training that can last from about a week to a few months. Employers may prefer to hire applicants with computer skills.

Some physical therapist assistants and aides continue their formal education to qualify for jobs in administration, management, and education.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

All states except Hawaii 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 administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Some states require that applicants pass additional state-administered exams, undergo a criminal record 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.

Physical therapist aides are not required to be licensed.

Important 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.

Job Outlook

Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides

Percent change in employment, projected 2012-22

Physical therapist assistants and aides

41%

Physical therapist assistants

41%

Physical therapist aides

40%

Total, all occupations

11%

 

Employment of physical therapist assistants is projected to grow 41 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Employment of physical therapist aides is projected to grow 40 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Demand for physical therapy services 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. However, many baby boomers also are entering the prime age for heart attacks and strokes, increasing the demand for cardiac and physical rehabilitation. Older people are particularly vulnerable to a number of chronic and debilitating conditions that require therapeutic services. These patients often need additional help in their treatment, making the roles of physical therapist assistants and aides vital.

In addition, the incidence of chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity is growing. More physical therapist assistants and aides will be needed to help patients maintain their mobility and manage the effects of such conditions.

Medical and technological developments should permit an increased percentage of trauma victims and newborns with birth defects to survive, creating added demand for therapy and rehabilitative services. In addition, federal health legislation will expand the number of patients who have access to health insurance, increasing patient access to physical therapy services.

Physical therapists are expected to increasingly use physical therapist assistants in order to reduce the cost of physical therapy services. Once the physical therapist has evaluated a patient and designed a plan of care, the assistant can provide many parts of the treatment, as directed by the therapist.

Job Prospects

Opportunities for physical therapist assistants are expected to be very good. Physical therapist assistants will be needed to help physical therapists care for and manage more patients. However, physical therapist aides may face strong competition from the large pool of qualified people.

Job opportunities should be particularly good in acute hospital, skilled nursing, and outpatient orthopedic settings, where the elderly are most often treated. Job prospects should be especially favorable in rural areas, as many physical therapists cluster in highly populated urban and suburban areas.

Employment projections data for Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides, 2012-22
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2012 Projected Employment, 2022 Change, 2012-22 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Physical therapist assistants and aides

31-2020 121,400 170,800 41 49,400

Physical therapist assistants

31-2021 71,400 100,700 41 29,300

Physical therapist aides

31-2022 50,000 70,100 40 20,100
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