Physical Therapist Assistant Education Requirements
To become a physical therapist assistant, you'll need to earn a college degree, typically at the associate's level. However, the education required for this position doesn't end there. To work in this field, you'll need to participate in continuing education for the duration of your career. The educational requirements for a physical therapist assistant consist of:
- Classroom and lab work (pre-certification)
- Clinical practice (pre-certification)
- Continuing skills education (post-certification)
As an assistant, you'd work under a physical therapist's supervision, helping patients with exercises and mobility equipment, observing patient therapy, and providing feedback to the physical therapist. You'll train how to do this in an associate's degree program in the field of physical therapy assisting and demonstrate your knowledge by passing a licensure or certification exam.
To obtain a license or certification, your degree program must be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Accredited programs for physical therapy assistants are available nationwide and generally award an Associate of Applied Science. As of 2017, about 360 accredited programs were available at universities, career colleges, and community colleges.
How Long is Physical Therapy Assistant School?
You won't have to spend too much time in school before beginning your physical therapy assistant career, as it typically only takes about two years to complete an associate's program. Physical therapy assistant programs consist of 4-5 semesters of coursework in both general education and physical therapist assistant topics, as well as real-world training. For some programs, you may be able to complete some general education requirements at a different school before starting your physical therapist assistant coursework at your chosen school.
In the final semester of a physical therapy assistant program, you can expect to complete an internship at a nearby physical therapy office or hospital. The internship provides you with opportunities to learn from physical therapy experts and get hands-on, supervised experience working with therapy patients.
Physical Therapy Assistant Degree
There are a couple of degree options available for you to choose from once you've decided to pursue a career as a physical therapy assistant. The most common and readily available option is an associate's degree program, which prepares you for licensure and career opportunities in physical therapy offices, doctor's offices, hospitals, and other medical care centers.
There are also some bachelor's programs available that are aimed toward enhancing your knowledge of physical therapy principles and providing advanced training in the field to qualify you for careers in administration or help you take steps toward becoming a physical therapist.
By completing a physical therapy assistant degree program, you'll acquire the skills needed to help patients with exercises and treatment techniques suggested by the physical therapist, such as balance training or stretching methods. These programs provide training in patient communication and respect for each patient's individual needs. You'll learn how to observe patients during therapy, provide feedback to physical therapists, interact with patients and their families, and collect critical patient data to help with therapeutic interventions.
Physical Therapy Assistant Courses
As part of your physical therapy assistant program, you'll explore many different aspects of health and the human body, including the fundamentals of anatomy, kinesiology, assessments, and rehabilitation principles. Your courses will delve into the history, practices and principles of physical therapy, and should help you obtain a solid grasp of the practice areas that are included in physical therapy, as well as the role of health insurance in therapy.
You'll also take courses like basic patient care, where you'll get an education on crucial physical therapy information like body mechanics and positioning, vital signs, medical terminology, and patient transfer.
Other courses in an associate's degree program in physical therapy assistant include:
- Physical therapy interventions
- Physical agents
- Communication methods
- Electrical stimulation
- Neurological assessments
In addition to on-campus courses, there are also online physical therapy assistant courses available. It should be noted though that online coursework may be limited due to the hands-on nature of training to become a physical therapy assistant.
Physical Therapy Assistant Associate Degree
In an associate's degree program, you'll be expected to complete general education courses before diving into the physical therapy assistant courses that make up the bulk of the degree plan. Credit requirements vary by school, but most programs require you to complete 40-60 credit hours in physical therapy assistant coursework in addition to about 16 hours of general education courses.
Physical therapy assistant associate's degree programs combine traditional classroom study with lab experiences and hands-on training. Along with lectures and classroom discussions, you'll participate in on-campus labs where you'll get training on common therapeutic activities, rehabilitation methods, and exercises used in physical therapy.
Since physical therapy assisting is a hands-on career, you'll need to complete at least 16 weeks, or one semester, of clinical training under the supervision of licensed physical therapists. This training is offered in the form of internships or clinical practices at approved medical sites near the colleges and schools that offer this program.
Once you've completed your training and earned an associate's degree from an accredited program, you'll be ready to take the National Physical Therapy Exam for physical therapist assistants, which is required by every state in the U.S. After earning your license and finding a job, you may need to continue to take courses in related fields to maintain your license.
Physical Therapy Assistant Bachelor's Degree
Bachelor's degree programs for physical therapy assistants are not as common as associate's degree programs. Since licensure only requires an associate's degree, most aspiring physical therapy assistants earn that degree, then begin their careers. However, a few programs are available at the bachelor's level for current physical therapy assistants who want to expand their knowledge or obtain more advanced positions in their field. These options include a Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapist Assistant and a Bachelor of Science in Health Science (a post-PTA program).
The bachelor's degree in physical therapist assistant is generally offered as a completion degree. This means that applicants must have already earned an associate's degree in physical therapy assisting and have a license or have completed at least 60 hours of an associate's degree program in the field.
The bachelor's program expands on knowledge acquired at the associate's level and requires an additional 55-65 credit hours (bringing the total of the associate's and bachelor's credit hours to around 120). Bachelor's programs in physical therapy assistant generally don't have clinical requirements, since this would have been completed in the associate's program. Courses typically include:
- Physical therapy ethics
- Advanced interventions
- Chronic care
- Clinical leadership
- Physical therapy rehabilitation
- Stress management and health
A bachelor's degree in health science can be used as a bridge to a doctorate in physical therapy if you're interested in becoming a physical therapist. The health sciences bachelor's degree is also useful if you're considering administrative positions within the physical therapy field.
Physical Therapy Assistant Degree Online
Since your work as a physical therapy assistant will require you to interact with patients and provide hands-on care throughout your career, the training you receive to become an assistant can be difficult to obtain through online study. However, some schools offer hybrid associate's degree programs for students who want to take some of their courses online.
The hybrid design allows students to take non-lab courses, such as human body functions or rehabilitation principles, in an online format. Students in most online or hybrid associate's degree programs are still expected to take lab courses on campus, so you may need to travel if the school you've selected is far away from your home.
At the bachelor's level, though, hands-on training isn't as critical, since you've already completed those components in your associate's program. As such, there are some bachelor's programs in physical therapy assistant that are available fully online.