How to Become a Physical Therapy Aide

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The latest data from the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) shows very strong growth in the field of physical therapy, both in terms of demand for physical therapy services and in the number of jobs becoming available. The APTA expects the number of licensed physical therapists in the US to reach 234,000 by 2020, due to a wide range of factors, including an aging population and an increase in insured Americans through the Affordable Care Act.

An increased demand for physical therapists also boosts the demand for physical therapy aides, valued for the beneficial assistance they provide to the physical therapy team. Physical therapy aides work under a physical therapist or physical therapy assistant, providing delegated, selected, and/or routine tasks that keep the practice running smoothly.

For many, completing a physical therapy aide career diploma program and becoming a physical therapy aid is a great way to enter the exciting and deeply rewarding field of physical therapy.

What is the Difference Between a Physical Therapy Assistant and a Physical Therapy Aid?

Although the two terms—physical therapy assistant and physical therapy aid—may sound quite similar, these professions are actually very different in terms of everything from education requirements to job responsibilities to state licensure requirements:

Physical therapy assistants – Licensed professionals that plan and implement physical therapy programs under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist.

  • Must complete an associate’s-level physical therapy program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Must sit for the National Physical Therapy Examination–PTA to earn national certification through the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT)
  • Must be licensed through their state physical therapy board, a requirement in all states

Physical therapy aids – Work only in a secondary supportive role and under the direct supervision of a physical therapist or physical therapy assistant.

  • No legal requirement to complete any specific course of education (although most employers require PT aids to complete a physical therapy aid career diploma program)
  • No exam or national certification requirements
  • No state licensing requirements

How to Become a Physical Therapy Aid: Earning a Career Diploma

Many employers of physical therapy aids require candidates to complete a physical therapy aide career diploma program offered through vocational and career training schools. These programs may also be referred to as “certificate” programs. These vocational training programs prepare graduates with all the skills they’ll need to be competitive job candidates and highly capable physical therapy aides.

A vocational “certificate” is generally considered different from professional “certification,” although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. A “certificate,” or career diploma, is awarded at the end of a vocational training program that prepares students with the skills they need to be competitive job candidates. “Certification,” on the other hand, is generally the term used for a credential awarded after proving professional competency through an exam process, and isn’t always directly associated with actual training. Though there are some organizations that use the term “physical therapy aide certification courses and exams,” this is really the same thing as a certificate or career diploma.

Admission into a physical therapy aid career diploma program generally requires a high school diploma. In many cases, physical therapy aid students have some experience working as medical assistants or certified nursing assistants and pursue formal physical therapy aid training as a way to learn additional skills or change professions.

Physical therapy aid career diploma programs can last anywhere from 1 to 6 months and feature a curriculum that includes:

  • Medical terminology
  • An introduction to common physical dysfunctions and disorders
  • Physical therapy treatment techniques and exercises
  • Effective communication skills

… and much more …

Basic courses cover topics such as body mechanics, reporting, charting, coding, and the use of physical therapy equipment and techniques.

Many programs are offered in a partially or fully online format, allowing students to learn vital skills through interactive web-based study and earn their physical therapy aid career diploma on their own time from the comfort of home.

Some of the courses found in a physical therapy aid career diploma program include:

  • Human Anatomy and Physiology
  • Introduction to Health Information
  • Introduction to Physical Therapy
  • The Physical Therapy Aide
  • Body Systems Terminology
  • Common Physical Disorders
  • Physical Therapy Treatments

Many programs offer students the option to complete clinical rotations as a way to gain real-world experience, which may help them transition more easily into the profession.

The physical therapy aid profession is an unregulated, unlicensed, and nonregistered profession. This means that after completing a physical therapy aide career diploma program, graduates can immediately enter the workforce or start applying for jobs.

What are the Job Responsibilities and Duties of a Physical Therapy Aid?

Physical therapy aids are educated and trained to provide patient support, front end support, and light housekeeping services. As valuable members of the physical therapy team, physical therapy aides also often work alongside physical therapists and physical therapy assistants as they deliver physical therapy services to patients.

Although physical therapy aids are not trained specifically in how to provide hands on physical therapy services, the general assistance they provide allows PTs and PTAs to perform their jobs in a more efficient, organized, and cost-effective manner.

For example, physical therapy aides are often the first point of contact for the office, greeting patients, checking them in, and leading them to the treatment area. They also prepare the treatment rooms, ensuring they are clean, organized, and ready for the next patient. This may include bringing in any necessary tools or materials the physical therapist may need for treatment.

Physical therapy aids often complete most of the office’s clerical duties, such as preparing and organizing paperwork, updating patient records, scheduling appointments, and answering the phones.

Additional job duties and responsibilities of physical therapy aides include:

  • Clean, organize, and disinfect equipment after treatment
  • Offer general assistance to patients during exercise or therapeutic treatments, under the direction of the physical therapist or physical therapy assistant
  • Record details about treatments and the equipment used for patient records
  • Compile data on patient responses and progress for patient records
  • Transport patients to and from the treatment areas using wheelchairs or by providing support
  • Assist patients when dressing or undressing
  • Assist patients when putting on or removing supportive devices, such as braces, slings, and splints
  • Secure patients to therapy equipment
  • Coordinate the schedules of multiple physical therapists and physical therapy assistants if working in larger offices or hospital units
  • Take inventory and order and organize supplies
  • Ensure physical therapy equipment is in good working order and arrange for repair or maintenance of equipment as necessary
  • Assist patients being fitted for orthopedic and supportive devices

Where Do Physical Therapy Aides Work?

Although the majority of physical therapy aids work in hospitals (about 80 percent), they may also work in a variety of settings where physical therapy services are performed:

  • Rehabilitation facilities: Rehabilitation facilities and units are designed to provide patients with intense therapy for a relatively short period of time.
  • Sub-acute rehabilitation facilities: Sub-acute rehabilitation facilities provide medical and/or rehabilitation care that is less-intensive in nature.
  • Extended care facility/nursing home/skilled nursing facilities: Extended care and similar facilities provide long-term nursing care, rehabilitation, and other services.
  • Outpatient clinics/private practices: Many physical therapy services are provided on an outpatient basis to treat patients with musculoskeletal and neuromuscular impairments or injuries.
  • Wellness/prevention/fitness facilities: Physical therapy aids may work alongside physical therapists who provide PT services with a focus on wellness. These types of services are often performed in fitness centers and sports training facilities.
  • Industrial/workplace/occupational environments: Physical therapy services may be provided in the workplace with the goal of improving or enhancing employee health, improving employee safety, and increasing productivity.

Salary Expectations for Physical Therapy Aids

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physical therapy aids earned an average, annual salary of $27,440, as of May 2015, with the top 10 percent in the profession earning more than $38,040.

The top-paying industries for physical therapy aids during the same period were:

  • Psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals: $64,910
  • Vocational rehabilitation services: $35,490
  • Residential, development disability, mental health, and substance abuse facilities: $33,660
  • Home healthcare services: $32,970
  • Elementary and secondary schools: $31,800

The top-paying states for physical therapy aides, as of May 2015, were:

  • Illinois: $42,060
  • Alaska: $36,770
  • Washington D.C.: $34,580
  • Minnesota: $34,310
  • Connecticut: $31,350