Physical Therapist Assistant Careers

Physical therapist assistants are active participants in the healthcare system, providing direct patient care under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist to assist in the treatment of patients with functional limitations, injuries, or disease. Find out how you can become a licensed physical therapist assistant in your state.

How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

What is Physical Therapy? – Physical therapy is evidence-based stretching, exercise, education, and stimulation treatment administered by college-educated, licensed experts as part of multidisciplinary medical treatments for pain, movement, or other physical impairments from disease or injury.

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All states, as well as the District of Columbia, have guidelines in place for the practice and licensure of physical therapist assistants. This means that becoming a physical therapist assistant starts with successfully satisfying state mandated requirements:

Step 1. Complete a Physical Therapist Assistant Associate’s Degree Program

Becoming a licensed physical therapist assistant starts by completing a two-year (5 semesters) associate’s degree program that has been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).

CAPTE is the only agency recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation and the U.S. Department of Education as having the authority to accredit entry-level physical therapist assistant education programs. As of 2015, CAPTE has accredited 333 physical therapist assistant programs throughout the US.

Junior/community colleges, trade schools, and traditional colleges and universities offer physical therapist assistant programs. These programs, which are a blend of classroom, laboratory and clinical experiences, include physical therapy courses, general education courses, and training in CPR and first aid.

Some of the primary courses in a physical therapist assistant program include:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Neuroscience
  • Clinical pathology

Classroom study and lab components comprise about 75 percent of a physical therapist assistant program, while the remaining 25 percent is dedicated to clinical education. It is typical to spend about 16 weeks of your program completing clinical education experiences.

Step 2. Apply for State Licensure and Sit for the National Licensing Examination

Once you have graduated from a CAPTE-accredited physical therapist assistant program, you’ll be eligible to pursue your state license as a physical therapist assistant.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia have independent licensing requirements. Many states allow candidates to apply for licensure and sit for the national examination even before graduating.

Currently, 19 states have minimum age requirements for licensure. A number of states, such as Arkansas and Washington D.C., require a minimum age of 18, while Missouri requires a minimum age of 19 and Idaho requires a minimum age of 21.

Specific requirements vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, so you are advised to consult the step-by-step guide for your state found in the links above.

National Licensing Examination

All states require candidates for physical therapist assistant licensure to take and pass the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy’s (FSBPT) National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) for PTAs. You must graduate from a CAPTE-accredited program and receive approval from your state’s physical therapy board before you’ll be allowed to sit for the licensing exam.

The purpose of the NPTE-PTA is to:

  • Assess basic, entry-level competence after graduating from a CAPTE-accredited physical therapist assistant program
  • Help regulatory authorities evaluate candidates
  • Provide comparable standards between jurisdictions

Once you have applied for state licensure and have received approval to take the NPTE-PTA, you may schedule to take the examination through Prometric, a computer-based testing service.

The cost to take the NPTE-PTA is $400, which is paid directly to FSBPT, plus a $70 proctoring fee paid to the third-party exam provider, Prometric. You can take the examination at any of the Prometric testing centers located throughout the U.S.

State Jurisprudence Examination

In 27 states, such as Maryland, North Carolina, and Texas, physical therapist assistant candidates must take and pass a state jurisprudence examination as a condition for state licensure. You must contact your state physical therapy board to register and take this examination, if required.

The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) administers the state jurisprudence examination for the following states: Alabama, Arizona, California, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Ohio. In these states, you must take the jurisprudence examination through FSBPT.

Step 3. Start your Career as a Physical Therapist Assistant and Keep your License Current

As a licensed physical therapist assistant, you can work under the guidance and supervision of a licensed physical therapist in a number of settings:

  • Home healthcare
  • Hospitals
  • Industrial, workplace, or other occupational settings
  • Inpatient/outpatient rehabilitation centers
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Physical therapy offices
  • Skilled nursing/assisted care facilities
  • Sports and fitness facilities

All jurisdictions require the completion of specific continuing education and/or continuing competency credits/units for license renewal. The amount and type of continuing education or continuing competency varies from one state to the next.

For example, physical therapist assistants in Alaska must complete at least 24 hours of continuing education credits directly related to patient care, while physical therapist assistants in Florida must complete continuing education courses in HIV and the prevention of medical errors to qualify for license renewal.

Physical therapist assistants in Florida, Georgia, and Nebraska may take an FSBPT administered jurisprudence examination to meet a portion of their licensure renewal requirements. Texas and Oklahoma require physical therapist assistants to take and pass an independent state jurisprudence examination for license renewal.

Step 4. Take Steps to Advance in the Profession

There are a number of ways you can advance in the physical therapist assistant profession:

Earn a voluntary credential, such as the American Physical Therapy Association’s (APTA) PTA Recognition of Advanced Proficiency Program, which requires specific education, experience, and community service requirements. It also requires additional experience as part of a team in one or more of the following areas of physical therapy:

  • Aquatic
  • Neuromuscular
  • Geriatric
  • Musculoskeletal
  • Cardiovascular/pulmonary
  • Education
  • Oncology
  • Acute care
  • Integumentary
  • Pediatric

Additionally, you can complete a bridge program or bachelor’s degree, both of which prepare you for graduate study in physical therapy, and ultimately, a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), which is required to become a licensed physical therapist.

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