How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant: Career Roadmap

Jan 02, 2019

Research the requirements to become a physical therapist assistant. Learn about the job description and duties, and explore the step-by-step process to start a career in physical therapy. View article »

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  • 0:00 Physical Therapist Assistants
  • 1:13 Earn an Associate Degree
  • 2:51 Obtain Licensure
  • 3:13 Gain Experience in a Specialty

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Video Transcript

Physical Therapist Assistants

Physical therapist assistants help people with health-related conditions or medical problems that cause pain and limit their mobility. Some of the duties of these assistants include increasing strength and coordination; helping patients perform exercises and stretches; and training patients to walk with canes, walkers, or crutches.

Many physical therapist assistants also track patient progress and educate patients and families on what they can do after they finish treatment. These professionals typically work under the direct supervision of a licensed physical therapist and can work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, nursing homes, private practices, and schools. Work might be physically demanding, requiring assistants to set up equipment and lift or move patients.

Education and licensing requirements are strict, but salary potential is relatively high for the level of education. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapist assistants earned an average of $55,250 per year as of May 2015. Now let's explore the steps that lead to a career as a physical therapist assistant.

Earn an Associate Degree

In most states, physical therapist assistants must hold a physical therapist assistant associate degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. In addition to the completion of general education requirements, coursework typically includes anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, exercise physiology, clinical pathology, and biomechanics.

According to the American Physical Therapy Association, 75% of the curriculum for these programs is based on lab work and classroom instruction, while 25% is devoted to clinical education. During this time, students can expect to participate in clinical rotations where they work in patient settings and gain hands-on experience in a variety of treatment centers. You can use these clinical requirements to gain work experience, which is generally preferred by employers.

These clinical rotations can last as long as 16 weeks of full-time clinical work, providing plenty of time to develop the real-world experience valued by many employers. They teach students to follow a physical therapist's care plan, work as part of a health care team, and practice interventions.

Here's another tip for success: Develop strong people and communication skills. Since physical therapist assistants spend most of their time interacting with patients, the ability to be friendly and courteous towards others is highly regarded. While in school, students can take advantage of clinical experiences and enroll in communications classes to develop the interpersonal skills needed to succeed in this profession.

Obtain Licensure

Although licensing requirements vary for each state, passing the National Physical Therapy Exam is necessary in all states. The exam is multiple-choice and contains five sections. Some states require physical therapist assistants to take other exams or continuing education courses. Students should contact their state licensing boards to obtain regional information.

Gain Experience in a Specialty

Now it's time to gain experience and, if you choose, to specialize. Phsyical therapy specialties include sports, pediatrics, neurology, and orthopedics, among many others. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for geriatrics physical therapist assistants is expected to be particularly high as the elderly population continues to grow. These specialists work in nursing, acute hospital, and orthopedic settings. By gaining experience within these types of settings, physical therapist assistants can improve job prospects and become competitive candidates for employment.

To become a physical therapist assistant, you need an associate degree and state licensure, and you can choose to concentrate your career on a physical therapy specialty.

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