Maybe you’re fresh out of high school and want to jumpstart a healthcare career. But where do you start? Or perhaps you’re a physical therapy aide wanting to expand your career options and enhance earning potential. Either way, considering a physical therapy assistant career is a solid choice. Not only can a physical therapy assistant career be rewarding, but the field is also rapidly growing and comes with relatively generous compensation.
Read on for a step-by-step guide on becoming a physical therapy assistant as well as all the vital information you’ll need to begin your physical therapy assistant career.
A physical therapy assistant (PTA) is a healthcare professional who works alongside physical therapists while providing patients with compassionate, hands-on care.
Patients needing physical therapy span from those recuperating from surgeries to those seeking a way to manage chronic physical pain to those recovering from a sports-related injury. PTAs play a significant role in the physical therapy process.
Physical therapy assistants work alongside physical therapists and provide essential hands-on patient care, including exercises, therapeutic modalities, and educating patients about self-guided exercises they can do at home. Additionally, PTAs document patient progress and effectively communicate patient needs and concerns with physical therapists.
While daily tasks can vary, PTAs routinely work with patients to recover from injuries, surgeries, and illnesses impacting mobility and movement. Other responsibilities include,
- Working with patients and physical therapists to devise treatment plans.
- Helping patients perform activities and exercises to enhance balance, coordination, flexibility, and strength.
- Utilizing therapeutic tools, including ultrasound and electrical stimulation.
- Monitoring and documenting patient progress and communicate needs and changes with physical therapists.
- Educating patients and families regarding exercises they can use at home to facilitate therapeutic progress.
Scope of Practice
The scope of practice for physical therapy assistants—the activities a licensed professional is legally permitted to perform—varies between states. Generally, PTAs work under the direction of licensed physical therapists to deliver competent and compassionate care to clients.
Physical therapy assistants traditionally work in healthcare settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, nursing homes, and in-home care.
The job of a PTA is a physical one, and these workers spend ample time on their feet, working closely with patients, physical therapists, and other healthcare professionals.
Step 1: Earn Your Degree
First thing first: you’ve got to complete an accredited physical therapy assistant program. These are associate degrees, often offered at community colleges, and are typically structured so that you can earn your degree in about two years.
Step 2: Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam
After completing a PTA program, you’ll need to successfully pass the national physical therapy exam (NPTE). This exam tests theoretical knowledge and practical skills, ensuring you’ve honed the competencies necessary for competent and compassionate care.
Step 3: Obtain Your License
After passing the national physical therapy exam, it’s time to obtain your state licensure or certification. The licensure requirements can vary between states, but most states require proof of an earned PTA degree, exam score, and a completed application with all requisite fees.
Step 4: Secure a Job
Other than the standard job search websites, utilize professional PTA organizations for employment opportunities and connections made through PTA clinicals. Finally, check local hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation centers to inquire about any job openings.
Physical therapy assistant associate degree programs typically take about two years to complete.
The average annual physical therapy assistant salary is $61,180 as of 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The lowest 10 percent earned less than $37,280, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $80,170.
Highest-Paying States for Physical Therapy Assistants
- California – $73,150
- Rhode Island – $70,690
- New Jersey – $70,450
- Texas – $69,470
- Connecticut – $68,390
Highest-Paying Cities for Physical Therapy Assistants
- San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA – $85,960
- San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA – $78,740
- Santa Maria-Santa Barbara, CA – $76,390
- Midland, TX – $75,550
- Salinas, CA – $75,150
Physical Therapy Assistant Salary by Years of Experience
Like many other careers, experience as a physical therapy assistant can translate into higher wages. Payscale.com reports,
- Less than one year of experience an average hourly wage of $22.66
- 1-4 years of experience an average hourly wage of $25.11
- 5-9 years of experience an average hourly wage of $26.90
- 10-19 years of experience an average hourly wage of $28.76
- 20+ years of experience an average hourly wage of $32
The employment of physical therapy assistants is projected to grow by 24% by 2031, according to the BLS. In addition to that job growth, PTAs can anticipate as many as 25,500 annual job openings. This faster-than-average job growth coincides with an aging Baby Boomer population that will require more rehabilitative services.
Continuing education requirements for PTAs can vary between states and employers, but most locations and professional organizations do require continuing education for PTAs to maintain state licensure or certification.
Like in other healthcare professions, PTAs must complete a number of continuing education units (CTUs) or hours during the lifespan of their current license. The precise number of required CTUs varies.
In California, the California Physical Therapy Board requires that PTAs complete 30 credits of continuing education, pulling from topics like differential diagnosis, ethics, and professional conduct. PTAs in Maryland must complete 20 continuing education credits before renewing their biannual license.
The content of continuing education courses can vary, but continuing education credits often focus on developments and advancements in PTA practice. Some common topics include:
- Ethics and Professional Conduct
- Kinesiology and Biomechanics
- Manual Therapy
- Neurological Rehabilitation
- Therapeutic Exercise