Following a year with unprecedented clinical demand due to the coronavirus pandemic, a number of career roles in health care are experiencing immense growth and present a strong career outlook moving forward. Health care career professionals in these positions play an important role in the care of patients across the country, who rely on them…
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How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant
Alternate Career Titles:
Physical Therapist Assistant Job Description: A Physical Therapist Assistant provides physical therapy treatments and procedures to patients under the supervision of a Physical Therapist
Physical Therapist Assistant Salary (Annual): $58,790
Physical Therapist Assistant Salary Range: $33,450 to $80,840
How Long To Become a Physical Therapist Assistant: 2 years
Physical Therapist Assistant Requirements: Associate’s Degree and Certification
Become a Physical Therapist Assistant
A Physical Therapist Assistant works under the supervision of a Physical Therapist to provide therapy treatments and procedures to patients needing to regain movement or manage pain. They also observe patients before, during and after therapies, recording the information and reporting it to the Physical Therapist.
Additionally, and in accordance with State laws, Physical Therapist Assistants may help develop treatment plans, carry out routine functions and modify specific treatments as needed. Before entering this career in healthcare, learners must be able to recognize Physical Therapist Assistant pros and cons, and differentiate the differences between a Physical Therapy Aide vs Assistant. Ultimately, there are more demanding educational requirements to become a PTA, and therefore they tend to hold more responsibilities than Physical Therapy Aides. Learn more about what a Physical Therapist Assistant does.
“My career as a Physical Therapist Assistant has been rewarding, a learning process and dynamic,” Monique Beeko, PTA, said. “I have enjoyed every experience. There is nothing like seeing your patient/client go from being wheelchair bound to walking and getting back into their favorite activity even if it is modified and that brings joy to me. “
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Education & Training
To become a Physical Therapist Assistant, professionals need to obtain an Associate’s Degree from an accredited PTA program.* These programs typically take 2 years to complete, and involve classes in English, anatomy, physiology, psychology and clinical work. In addition to earning an Associate’s Degree, PTA’s normally gain clinical experience through on-site training that can last from about a week to a month. They may also wish to earn certifications in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), basic life support (BLS) and other first-aid skills.
“An Associate degree from a Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education-accredited PTA program is required,” Beeko said. “Also prior experience as a rehabilitation technician or even a Chiropractic Assistant helps with the curriculum. I was a Chiropractic Assistant for three years before becoming a PTA.”
Beeko added that the most difficult aspect of PTA schooling was during practicals when she had to merge knowledge with hands-on application while being graded by a professor. Although she believes the difficulty stemmed from close professor supervision, she now sees that it was a necessary part of the program, especially as she is now supervised by Physical Therapists, peers, patients and their families.
“Other challenges were excelling at the practical examinations, clinical experiences where PTA students start getting exposure to real-life patients, and at-times the schedule of classes potentially interfering with one’s ability to work while in school and be able to survive financially,” Beeko said. “Also, I am not the best test taker and so I learned to study thoroughly to ensure I didn’t just pass the exam but I understood the content. It took me 2 years, however there are 16 and 18-month program options available.”
After completing the program, to begin practicing, PTA’s must also be licensed or certified, requiring graduation from an accredited PTA program. It also requires passing the National Physical Therapy Exam for Physical Therapist Assistants. In addition, some states additionally require that PTA’s pass an exam on the state’s laws regulating their practice, undergo a criminal background check and be at least 18 years old.
“If a PTA wanted to advance their career, they could get a specialization in areas varying from orthopedics to neurology. This involves finding courses via APTA website or other organizations and that usually comes with a cost,” Beeko said. “They could also take continuing education courses to gain more knowledge and hands-on experience.”
Beeko added that another way to secure advancement is by working towards a Doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT) or by branching into healthcare management/administration. The first step would be to obain a Bachelor’s degree, and by doing this, the professional would function more as a rehabilitation manager than a PTA.
Additionally this experience could prepare a professional to later become a Physical Therapist themselves. The skills and knowledge learn in a PTA program can be used as an introduction to the larger programs the career supports. Learn about other physical therapy careers today!
Experience & Skills
“Fundamental skills such as good communication, attention to detail, thoroughness, and professionalism are expected,” Beeko said.
Physical Therapist Assistant, professionals should be knowledgeable on how to treat patients through exercise, massage therapy, balance training and other therapeutic interventions. They should also be able to observe and record patient progress, as well as to operate the necessary devices for intervention, such as walkers. Lastly, PTA’s must be able to educate patients and their family members, much like a Health Educator would, about what to do after treatments, and if anything needs to be done at home following the treatment.
To be a successful Physical Therapist Assistant, professionals should possess great interpersonal skills and compassion. This is because patients seeking out a Physical Therapist Assistant may be in pain or discomfort and need their healthcare providers to be courteous, caring and friendly. PTA’s should also be detailed oriented, as records must be accurately and efficiently kept, as well as able to work using their hands and staying on their feet and moving possibly for long periods of time. Therefore, enjoying physical activity is another characteristic PTA’s should possess.
“Individuals wanting to become a PTA should be dynamic as patients can vary in presentation and temperament,” Beeko said. “In addition they should enjoy working with people, love to move around, be a great communicator, willing to take criticism from patients/families and colleagues and be a creative individual who can think on the go, a self-starter and people motivator.”
If you have these traits then maybe becoming a PTA is for you!
Most Physical Therapist Assistants are employed full-time, and because many are employed by physical therapy offices or clinics, there exists the possibility of having to work nights, weekends or extended hours to accommodate patient schedules. Additionally, PTA’s typically work for long periods of time standing and using their hands to help treat patients. Similar to careers as an Occupational Therapist or Occupational Therapy Assistant, Physical Therapist Assistants may need to be moving constantly. For this reason, they should ideally be in decent physical shape.
“The lifestyle of a PTA, depending on the setting, can be hectic,” Beeko said. “For me personally it has been interesting. The reason I say interesting is that I have functioned as a floater to various settings within companies that I have worked for, so I have to constantly change mindsets from inpatient to outpatient on a day-by-day or weekly basis.”
Despite this ever-changing schedule, Beeko notes that she has learned to establish a work-life balance for the sake of her 5-year-old and husband.
“Still, within a given work day it can be hectic, especially because I get patients with varying diagnosis and thinking on-the-go, planning out my interventions prior, being able to modify my plan of care based on circumstances of patient and their presentation is key. However I knew all this going in as a PTA”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, current demand for Physical Therapist Assistants is high due largely to the needs of an aging population who may experience heart attack, stroke or mobility-related injuries. Projected to grow 27 percent over the next decade, which is faster than the average for all occupations, the increased demand can also be attributed to more patients who are obese, have diabetes or other chronic conditions.
With ever-increasing medical and technological developments, more PTA’s will continuously be needed for assistance with therapy and rehabilitation services. Particularly in long-term care environments, the employment of additional PTA’s will help Physical Therapists to care for and manage a greater number of patients.
“I have worked at every setting imaginable including home health, multiple skilled nursing facilities, assisted living, nursing home, long-term care facilities, outpatient clinics, inpatient rehabilitation, acute care, military hospitals and other settings,” Beeko said. “I enjoyed the military hospital because I saw things I have yet to see in the civilian world and Tricare especially for active duty members provided any necessary durable medical equipment and was easy to work with interns of disposition. Also I got to experience breakthrough healthcare technologies before they were released into the civilian world.”
Today, PTA’s help about 88,300 positions within the U.S., with the highest employing facilities being officers of health practitioners, general medical and surgical hospitals, nursing care facilities, home healthcare services and the offices of Physicians. Also, because PTA’s tend to be more prevalent in highly populated urban and suburban areas, PTA careers are especially favorable in rural areas. The states employing the greatest number of PTAs are Texas, Ohio, Florida, California and Illinois (BLS).
“During clinical rotations, be sure to make connections and perform at an optimal or above level so that those instructors and owners of the rehabilitation facility see something special in you and want you to be part of their team,” Beeko suggested. “Network with rehabilitation recruiters and do thorough research on the company you want to practice in, including its workload, setting, types of patients, culture of the organization and potential for growth.”
The lowest 10 percent of Physical Therapist Assistants earned $33,450, while the top 10 percent earned more than $80,840. Proving to be a self-sustaining career in healthcare, the median annual wage for a PTA was $58,790 (BLS).
The top paying facilities for PTAs include home healthcare services, nursing care facilities, management of companies and enterprises, employment services and continued care retirement communities/assisted living facilities. The top paying states are Texas, New Jersey, California, Florida and Connecticut (BLS).
“The earning potential as a PTA vary from state-to state, based on experience and exposure and how PTAs market themselves,” Beeko said. “However, I will say that there are always chances to earn extra cash through as needed opportunities outside of your normal full-time position, and it can be very worth it from a financial and experience standpoint.”
Unions, Groups and Associations
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is an individual membership professional organization representing more than 100,000 member physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, and students of physical therapy. APTA seeks to improve the health and quality of life of individuals in society by advancing physical therapist practice, education, and research, and by increasing the awareness and understanding of physical therapy’s role in the nation’s health care system.
“‘The Facebook groups, ‘Pre-PT grind,’ ‘Physical Therapist Students’ and ‘Doctor Student Network’ are great places to start,” Beeko added. “Also, I have a YouTube channel ‘Monique Beeko’ where I talk about everything PTA or DPT, as I have experience in this area.”
- Research some local clinics/rehab centers around your area
- Call them and ask to Shadow a PTA or a PT for the day to see if the field is still of interest
- Research area schools that offer the PTA program and look at requirements to ensure that that the necessary prerequisites are taken
- If possible, find opportunities as a PT tech, and work to gain knowledge and exposure.
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Monique Beeko
Practice: Elite Performance
Location: Rockville, MD
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“The single biggest suggestion I would give to someone wanting to get into this career is do your research first, it is rewarding but one can easily get side tracked if they get in for any other reasons than passion to help people recover.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“One mistake in any field is they get in for convenience or for making money and money should never be the sole motivator.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“They should ask if in the long run being a PTA is worth it, because PTA’s do have the potential to grow but I believe at some point they are stunted and want more. So, it is best to ask what the next step is or should be to become an autonomous practitioner.”
Why did you choose to become a PTA?
“I enjoy helping people and it is more in the holistic medicine category and I find helping people recover through their bodied own innate ability to recover is a powerful thing.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“‘Desire,’ because I desire to complete my responsibilities well and also be fulfilled in helping others fulfill their goals. My desire drives me to continue to love what I do.”
Credentialing organization: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education