Physical Therapist Assistant School Programs

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Physical therapist assistants evaluate and treat disorders of the human body resulting from injury, disease, or other causes. The work of PTAs is always performed under the supervision and guidance of licensed physical therapists, and focuses on providing treatments designed to alleviate pain and improve physical function.

Becoming a physical therapist assistant involves demonstrating your knowledge and proficiency before a state board of physical therapy in order to qualify for a state-issued licensed.

If you have ambitions of becoming a physical therapist assistant, you will begin your journey by completing an associate’s degree program designed specifically for this profession.

Choosing a Physical Therapist Assistant Degree Program

Physical Therapist Assistant programs are two-year (5 semesters) Associate of Science (AS) programs offered through community colleges, technical schools, and traditional universities and colleges. As you consider your options for physical therapist assistant schools, you will find that programs are widely available.

In fact, as of the 2014/15 academic year, there were 333 physical therapist assistant programs in the U.S. accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). CAPTE accreditation is crucial when choosing a physical therapist assistant program because it is the only accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Department of Education to accredit entry-level physical therapy programs.

In other words, you must complete a CAPTE-approved program to become state licensed to practice as a physical therapist assistant. You can be sure that you possess the knowledge, skills, and behaviors necessary to take the national licensing examination and enter the physical therapist assistant profession if you complete a CAPTE-approved program.

Admission requirements for physical therapist assistant associate degree programs vary. However, many schools require incoming students to possess the following:

  • Proof of major medical insurance coverage
  • Proof of current immunizations (TB skin test, tetanus, German measles, flu, meningitis, etc.)
  • Proof of CPR certification for the Healthcare Provider
  • Completion of a physical examination, drug screening, and background check

The Skills You Can Expect to Develop in a Physical Therapist Assistant Degree Program

According to the American Physical Therapy Association, the purpose of physical therapist assistant education is to produce graduates who:

  • Communicate and work cooperatively with other members of the healthcare delivery team
  • Are competent, knowledgeable, service-oriented, and adaptable providers of patient care
  • Interact with and provide psychosocial support for patients and their caregivers and family members
  • Are prepared to assess a patient’s safety and response to interventions provided under the direction of a physical therapist
  • Are prepared to perform selected components of intervention and data collection
  • Provide assessments and interventions in an ethical, legal, safe, and effective manner
  • Recognize the individual, cultural, and economic differences of their clients

You may consider a variety factors when choosing a CAPTE-accredited physical therapist assistant program, such as:

  • Program structure and curriculum
  • Faculty composition
  • Student demographics
  • Facilities (classrooms, labs, etc.)
  • Size of the school and of the physical therapist assistant program
  • Licensure pass rates
  • Admission requirements
  • Cost and financial aid opportunities
  • Geographic location

Structure and Content of Physical Therapist Assistant Degree Programs

Schools generally organize physical therapist assistant programs into two phases:

  • Pre-technical/preparatory phase consisting of prerequisite courses
  • Technical phase consisting of coursework and clinical experiences directly related to the practice of physical therapist assisting

It is important to earn a competitive GPA in your prerequisite classes, which you must complete before you apply for admission and complete the technical phase of the program. Most schools give preference to students with higher prerequisite grades.

Typical prerequisite courses include:

  • Biology (usually cell biology)
  • Math (usually algebra-based)
  • Chemistry or physics

The core content of a physical therapist assistant program generally includes the following courses:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Behavioral sciences
  • Biomechanics
  • Clinical pathology
  • Communications
  • Exercise physiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Neuroscience
  • Professional ethics

Elective courses provide you with the opportunity to explore subspecialties within the field of physical therapy. Your elective coursework may allow you to focus on one or more of the following types of physical therapy:

  • Aquatic
  • Geriatric
  • Musculoskeletal
  • Cardiovascular/pulmonary
  • Oncology
  • Acute care
  • Pediatric

Classroom study makes up about 75 percent of a physical therapist assistant program’s curriculum, while clinical experiences make up the remaining 25 percent. You can expect to spend about 16 weeks completing the program’s clinical education experiences in settings like:

  • Nursing homes
  • Sub-acute hospitals
  • Pediatric facilities
  • Hospitals