PTA programs are rarely offered at the certificate level, because an associate's degree is required by state law in most of the United States. The associate's degrees needed for a physical therapist assistant career are available with some online components. However, due to the hands-on nature of physical therapy assisting, on-campus lab and clinical requirements are a part of all online associate's degree programs for this profession.
Applicants need a background in biology, reading, English and mathematics with a required background check prior to the completion of the program's clinical portion. Placement testing, minimum grade levels and prior volunteer hours completed may also be required. Most states will require graduates of an accredited PTA program to also pass the National Physical Therapy Exam, and some states have additional requirements.
Physical Therapist Assistant Associate's Degree
PTA associate's degree programs can be offered partially online, with an on-campus clinical requirement. Participants learn to work with physical therapists to measure and assess mobility issues, develop a treatment plan, communicate with patients and report results of treatment to other health care professionals. These programs often lead to an Associate in Applied Science and also qualify participants for the national PTA licensing examination. Although some states require PTAs to be certified or registered instead of licensed, the exam is a common requirement for those credentials as well.
Prerequisite courses typically include basic biology, reading, English and mathematics, and programs may require placement testing in these subjects. Some programs also require volunteer hours in the field before starting courses in the physical therapy concentration.
Program Information and Requirements
PTA programs take approximately two years and 68 credit hours of studies to complete. Although much of the coursework can be completed online, clinical hours in approved health care settings are also a required portion of these programs. A criminal and background check is normally required before students may participate in the clinical internship or fieldwork.
Registering, ordering class materials and accessing course plans is done via the Internet. Some schools use specific programs, like Blackboard or ANGEL, to manage the online courses.
List of Common Courses
Coursework in these PTA programs include subjects of anatomy, physiology, exercise and kinesiology. Some schools require biology coursework with a minimum grade achievement before beginning PTA studies. Online offerings vary by school and depend upon any lab or clinical in-person components.
Principles of Physical Therapy
This course introduces patient care and relationships, the impacts of illness and injury, PTA roles, communication skills and health care delivery in physical therapy. The history of physical therapy is also a concentration, and students learn various treatment skills.
Physiology and Anatomy
Human body function is studied in this class through topics such as cell structure, tissues, muscle anatomy and the skeletal, digestive, respiratory, reproductive and nervous systems. Lab work is a normal portion of this hybrid course to enhance learning through specimen examination and finding solutions to problems.
This class examines human movement and how it relates to exercise, muscle dysfunction and overall body systems. Testing and analysis of movement is also a concentration of this course.
Students in this course study current exercise techniques and equipment used in physical therapy treatment. The class, which may include a clinical component, focuses on different techniques used to improve flexibility, strength, posture and endurance in people with various conditions, injuries and disabilities.
Physical therapist assistants earned a median annual wage of $55,170 as of May 2015, according to the BLS. Employment in the field was expected to grow by 40%, much faster than the average for all occupations, between 2014-2024, due to increased need associated with an aging population (www.bls.gov).
Continuing Education Information
Physical therapist assistants can advance by gaining experience in clinical areas such as geriatric or pediatric physical therapy, as well as administrative roles as program directors or administrators. The American Physical Therapy Association offers recognition of advanced proficiency to those PTAs who meet the requirements, which include evidence of leadership and community involvement related to physical therapy, five years of specific work experience, minimum performance levels with a verifiable letter of reference and current membership in the association. In addition, all states require that PTAs be licensed or certified, but board requirements vary by state.
PTAs also have options in undergraduate, graduate or doctoral degree programs in physical therapy through various accredited schools. However, it's important to note that a PTA cannot simply advance to a physical therapy program; the two training progressions are different, and a PTA wanting to become a full physical therapist would need to start his or her education anew.
Blended format is available for PTA certificate (although rare) and associate's degree programs as a hands-on clinical element is required. Certification or licensure is required for PTAs, and they can expand their career options by learning specialty areas, or enrolling in a physical therapist degree program.