How to Become a Licensed Physical Therapist Assistant

Jan 24, 2020

Learn how to become a licensed physical therapist assistant. Research the education requirements, licensure information and experience required for starting a career in physical therapy.

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Should I Become a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Degree Level Associate degree
Degree Field(s) Physical therapy
License/Certification Licensure required in most states; voluntary certifications available
Experience None
Key Skills Compassion, interpersonal skills, manual dexterity, and stamina; knowledge of computer programs such as Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access or FileMaker Pro, bookkeeping software, and medical software like TherAssist and BioEX Systems Exercise Pro; experience with physical therapy equipment such as walkers, chair lifts, patient care beds, therapeutic balls, and prosthetic devices; ability to work standing for long periods and lift/move patients
Mean Annual Salary (2018) $57,750

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist, a physical therapist assistant helps to improve the mobility and daily function of patients who have been injured or have disabilities. Some of the treatments that physical therapist assistants may administer include exercise, massage, balance training, ultrasound therapy, electrical stimulation, and mechanical traction. After treating patients, physical therapist assistants must document patient responses and report their observations to the physical therapist.

These professionals can work in several places of employment, including doctors' offices, hospitals, nursing homes, health care centers and government offices. Many physical therapist assistants spend much of their day on their feet and helping to lift patients, which may risk back injury.

Physical therapist assistants must exhibit compassion, interpersonal skills, manual dexterity, and stamina. They also need knowledge of computer programs such as Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Access or FileMaker Pro, bookkeeping software, and medical software like TherAssist and BioEX Systems Exercise Pro. Additionally, they must have experience with various physical therapy equipment such as walkers, chair lifts, patient care beds, therapeutic balls, and prosthetic devices.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), physical therapist assistants earn a mean annual salary of $57,750 as of May 2018.

Earn an Associate's Degree

In most states, physical therapist assistants are required to have an associate's degree. Physical therapy assistant programs usually take two years to complete and are commonly available through trade schools and community colleges. These programs consist of both classroom and clinical components and are designed to provide students with all of the skills they need to pursue a career after graduation. In addition to taking courses in anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, kinesiology, psychology and rehabilitation, students must gain experience working at a treatment center. Students also receive instruction in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid.

Time spent working with patients often involves some physical exertion, since patients might need to be lifted or otherwise physically assisted. For this reason, physical therapist assistants should be in good physical condition and moderately strong. Improving physical fitness can help an assistant maintain strength and stamina while working after graduation.

Become Licensed

Most states require physical therapist assistants to become licensed. Those who graduate from an accredited physical therapy assistant program are eligible to take the National Physical Therapy Examination, which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Some states require state examinations to be taken in addition to the national exam. Continuing education credits might be required to maintain licensure, depending on the state.

Joining a professional organization, such as the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), can provide a physical therapist assistant with a wide variety of resources and benefits to aid in his or her career. The APTA even has a specific membership level available only to physical therapist assistants. Membership benefits include discounts on national conferences, networking opportunities and access to continuing education options.

Earn a Credential

Earning voluntary credentials, such as the APTA's Recognition of Advanced Proficiency for the Physical Therapist Assistant, might help a physical therapist assistant stand out as a professional in the field. Physical therapist assistants who are members of the APTA and have at least five years of work experience, 60 hours of continuing education credits, a letter of recommendation, and demonstrated leadership abilities might qualify for this credential. The work experience requirement includes at least 2,000 total working hours in such areas as musculoskeletal, geriatric, pediatric, or neuromuscular physical therapy. Five hundred of the hours must be completed in the year prior to applying for the credential.

Advance in the Field

Physical therapist assistants looking to advance might consider continuing their education and pursuing a degree to become a physical therapist. According to the APTA, there are a couple options for PTAs. The first is participating in a bridge program, which serves to help applicants pursuing a physical therapy graduate degree gain prerequisite credit for some of the courses they took in their PTA program. The second option is to enroll in a bachelor's degree completion program. These programs allow applicants to apply the knowledge gained in their PTA program toward a bachelor's degree in a health-related field. The program will also prepare a PTA for a graduate course of study in physical therapy.

Expert Contributor: Anna Szymanski Anna is a college instructor and fitness professional, has a Masters degree in Exercise Science, and is working toward a PhD in Performance Psychology.

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