Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) work as part of a team to provide physical therapy services under the direction and supervision of the physical therapist. PTAs implement selected components of patient/client interventions (treatment), obtain data related to the interventions provided, and make modifications in selected interventions either to progress the patient/client as directed by the physical therapist or to ensure patient/client safety and comfort.
PTAs assist the physical therapist in the treatment of individuals of all ages, from newborns to the very oldest, who have medical problems or other health-related conditions that limit their abilities to move and perform functional activities in their daily lives.
Physical therapist assistant (PTA) education, obtained in a Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)-accredited two-year associate degree program, prepares graduates for taking the national licensure examination and entering the field of physical therapy with the required knowledge, skills, and behaviors of a PTA. Licensure or certification is required in most states to work as a PTA.
The length of a PTA program is typically 2 years (5 semesters) consisting of general education course, physical therapy courses, and clinical education. Primary physical therapy content areas in the curriculum may include, but are not limited to, anatomy & physiology, exercise physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, neuroscience, clinical pathology, behavioral sciences, communication, and ethics/values. Approximately seventy-five percent (75%) of the PTA curriculum comprises classroom (didactic) and lab study and the remaining 25 percent (25%) is dedicated to clinical education. PT students spend on average 16 weeks in full-time clinical education experiences.
One example of a PTA program is Keiser University in Florida which offers an Associate of Science degree in PTA at six campuses. Their program provides the knowledge and skills for the graduate to assist in the management of conditions such as arthritis, amputation, fractures, cerebrovascular accident (stroke), spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, wounds, developmental delays, cerebral palsy, cardiac and pulmonary pathology, sport injuries, work injuries and other types of injuries and/or pathologies. This is also a CAPTE accredited school.
The Keiser PTA curriculum gives the prospective student a glimpse at typical major courses:
- Functional Modalities
- Therapeutic Exercise
- Medical Diseases
- Clinical Experience I, II & III
Students in the Keiser Associate of Science degree program must earn 74.0 credit hours. This school has prerequisites of Human Anatomy and Physiology I and II with a minimum of a ‘B’ in each course. Prerequisites will vary by college/university. Also, as part of the 74.0 total credit hours, students must complete a minimum of 10 hours of physical therapy observation or work experience during the last 12 months before entering the 48.0 credit hours of core (listed above).
The vast majority of PTAs, approximately 72%, work in hospitals or privately owned physical therapy practices. Others work in home health, schools, and rehab units. Roughly 28% of PTAs work part-time. Examples of where PTAs are needed:
- Acute Care- short-term hospital care
- Rehabilitation Hospital- intense therapy to improve patient’s ability to care for himself/herself
- Extended Care- nursing homes in the category
- Outpatient Care- clinics, medical offices, private practices
- Wellness/Prevention/Sports/Fitness- promoting healthy lifestyle
- Home Health- those with disabilities living at home
- Hospice- patients with terminal diseases
- Industrial, Workplace or other Occupational Environment- enhancing employee health and safety
- Local, State and Federal Government- Veteran’s Health Administration
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in 2012 that the median salary for PTAs was $39,430. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) stated the median income was $45,000 in a 2009 report. The BLS predicts an employment change/addition of 49,400 jobs from 2012 to 2022 or 41%. This is an extremely high job change percentage indicating this profession will continue to be in great demand.