Physical therapy is a branch of rehabilitative medicine focused on helping patients maintain, recover, or improve their physical abilities. Physical therapist assistants provide physical therapy services under the direction and supervision of licensed physical therapists.
Physical therapist assistants work with clients of every age who have injuries, diseases, and other health-related conditions that limit their ability to perform activities of daily living. But what does the job really entail?
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The Kinds of Issues Physical Therapist Assistants Address
Physical therapist assistants help physical therapists plan and execute therapy programs designed to help clients relieve pain, limit permanent physical disability, improve mobility, or improve their overall level of fitness and wellness.
Physical therapy patients may:
- Be accident victims
- Have short- or long-term disabilities
- Have diseases, such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis
Just a few of the conditions that physical therapist assistants address include:
- Back pain
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Developmental delays
- Traumatic brain injuries (TBI)
- Sports injuries
Physical therapist assistants help patients improve their mobility, strength, and coordination, often assisting clients improve mobility with crutches, canes, and walkers.
Job Duties and Practice Settings for Physical Therapist Assistants
Physical therapist assistants, in most practice settings, receive guidance from licensed physical therapists who ensure that clients in their care are able to return to or achieve their maximum level of physical function.
The job description for a physical therapist assistant likely includes the following duties:
- Examining new clients and, with the supervision of a physical therapist, developing a plan of care
- Working closely with patients to make sure goals associated with the plan of care are met
- Providing a variety of physical therapy techniques as to carry out the physical therapist’s plan of care, such as:
- Therapeutic exercise
- Functional training
- Deep soft tissue massage
- Physical modalities (e.g., electrotherapy, ultrasound, etc.)
In addition to engaging clients in rehabilitative activities, physical therapist assistants measure changes in their patients’ performance and modify or adjust the program as needed. Physical therapist assistants utilize a number of tools and objects, as well as ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and electrotherapy.
Physical therapist assistants may work in any number of suitable settings, such as:
- Outpatient clinics
- Skilled nursing facilities
- Industrial, workplace, or other occupational settings
- Inpatient/outpatient rehabilitation centers
- Sports and fitness facilities
- Physical therapy offices
- Clients’ homes
Education and State Licensing Requirements for Physical Therapist Assistants
Education Requirements – Before pursuing a physical therapist assistant job, candidates must complete an associate degree in physical therapist assisting from a school accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).
Community colleges, technical colleges, and traditional colleges and universities offer these programs, which generally take about two years to complete.
As of the 2014/15 academic year, there were 333 CAPTE-accredited physical therapist assistant programs in the U.S.
State Licensing Requirements – Following the successful completion of a physical therapist assistant program, graduates must take and pass the PTA National Physical Therapy Examination and meet the specific licensure requirements of the state in which they plan to practice. To date, all 50 states and the District of Columbia license physical therapist assistants.
Each state sets its own standards regarding a physical therapist assistant’s scope of work and supervision. Initial licensure requirements often vary from one state to the next in the following areas:
- Number of states requiring a SSN: 39
- Number of states requiring fingerprinting: 9
- Number of states with a minimum age for initial licensure: 19 (minimum age is between 18 and 21, depending on the state)
- Number of states requiring a criminal records check: 15
- Number of states requiring both a jurisdiction and federal records check: 11
Opportunities for Specialization in the Profession
Physical therapist assistants may focus their careers on a specific population group, such as geriatrics, oncology, or pediatrics, or on a specific type of physical therapy, such as aquatic physical therapy. In most cases, this type of specialization occurs while on the job. In other words, physical therapist assistants who want to specialize often do so by achieving employment in a practice that specializes in the same area of physical therapy.
Many physical therapist assistants also choose to complete additional courses in their chosen specialty within their associate’s degree program, or even beyond it. Many physical therapist assistant associate’s degree programs allow students to choose from any number of elective courses, thus providing them with an opportunity to specialize their degree.
Some physical therapists also choose to complete a bachelor’s degree in physical therapy, although this advanced degree is not necessary for state licensure.
APTA Professional Recognition
Physical therapist assistants can achieve advanced proficiency in their profession through the American Physical Therapy Association’s (APTA) PTA Recognition of Advanced Proficiency Program. This program recognizes physical therapist assistants who have achieved advanced proficiency through education, experience, and leadership.
To qualify for this recognition, physical therapist assistants must be part of a team that works in a specific area of physical therapy, such as:
- Acute care
Successful candidates receive a Certificate of Advanced Proficiency. To qualify for this recognition, candidates must possess:
- At least 5 years of work experience (2,000 total hours) that includes at least 500 hours in one of the above categories
- At least 60 contact hours of continuing education within the past 5 years
- A letter of reference from a supervising physical therapist showing consistent, above-average job performance
- Evidence of community service/leadership through involvement in at least 3 activities that demonstrate leadership abilities and contributions to the profession, community, and/or employer
Resources for Physical Therapist Assistants
- American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)
- APTA Student Assembly
- APTA Physical Therapist Assistant Caucus