Mentors in Health: Interview with a Physical Therapist Assistant

Britany Cunningham is a licensed physical therapist assistant (also known as a PTA) who works at several clinics in Nampa and Caldwell, Idaho. As a “PRN” (short for the Latin phrase pro re nata), she has a floating schedule and works with multiple clinics as needed. Currently, Cunningham treats patients at West Valley Medical Center in Caldwell and Altitude Physical Therapy, which has locations in Nampa and Caldwell.

As a recent graduate of the College of Western Idaho, she earned an associate of applied science (AAS) which is a technical two-year degree that prepares students for immediate entry into the workforce as a physical therapy assistant. With a rigorous curriculum that spans topics including pediatrics, neurology, and pathology, Britany was more than prepared to start her career as a physical therapy assistant.

HealthcareDegree.com sat down with her to learn more about what it’s like to be a physical therapy assistant and hear some of the challenges she has faced, as well as her advice for those interested in the field.

Interview with PTA Britany Cunningham on Career, Education & Challenges in the Field

What sparked your interest in working as a physical therapy assistant?

I worked at the front desk of a clinic for eight years. When I started working at a clinic in Nampa, Idaho, there were a lot more physical therapists and it got very busy. I saw physical therapists working day in and day out.

I also lost a whole lot of weight and got active. My body was weighed down and it didn’t do the things it wanted me to do. So, I also did a bit of physical therapy!

I didn’t even know physical therapy assistants existed until I was talking about lifestyle changes with a friend of mine who works as an athletic trainer. He suggested I look into being a physical therapist assistant. [It] was up and coming, and you just needed an associate’s degree.

Tell us about a typical day as a physical therapy assistant.

At West Valley Medical Center, I typically go in and get a call sheet (schedule) from the hospital to see the list of patients that I’m supposed to see and which treatments have already been done. I don’t get complex cases because I’m a new graduate.

Then, I check with the charge nurse—typically the nurse responsible for the hospital ward—to see patients and then the status of what happened between last time and now. I do the treatment and then document the patient’s progress and response. For some patients, I see them two times a day: in the AM and PM. Orthopedic doctors and surgeons often stress physical therapy two times a day.

What was it like to apply to a physical therapy assistant degree program?

I went to the College of Western Idaho at Nampa, Idaho. They have a point-based application system. So your grade in each prerequisite class is worth points and you had to get a certain number. I was originally on the waitlist; the program took only 14 people. I was tied with seven other people for the first spot on the waitlist!

I called the office and they told me to wait until people received their offers and chose to either accept or not go into the program. Two hours later, I got the call.

Sounds like a competitive process! What was the program like?

The program is for two years. We had a therapeutic modalities class, [as well as] neurological diagnosis. That was the hardest class I took. There were also two semesters of pathology, special populations, pediatrics, and even more neurology [courses]—so much stuff!

I also had orthopedics, muscles and special tests, and a physical therapy and health class that talked about physical therapy as a whole, including billing and what you would experience day-to-day.

Did your program offer clinical experiences?

We had three clinical affiliations. There was one, three-week affiliation in fall of our second year then two, six-week rotations in the final semester. The first rotation was inpatient or home health, the second [rotation] was outpatient care, and then you could choose [any setting for] the last one. They actually changed the program after us, so [in] my second year.

How do clinical experiences work?

You are supposed to evaluate yourself and then your instructor evaluates you. You’re expected to be at a certain level [when you start] and then improve at each rotation. I was performing at a high level at my first rotation largely because they had a lot of administrative needs, which I had experience with from my time working at the front desk.

I was then placed at a clinic with athletes and younger folks. My third and last rotation was home health where I was with a physical therapist and a licensed physical therapist assistant. At that point, I was expected to be entry-level.

Should those interested in a degree program gain experience working at the front desk of a physical therapy office or as a physical therapy aide prior to applying?

Yes, as you already have a handle on what to expect. Being an aide prior to [applying] is very beneficial, but any kind of medical background is helpful.

Have you faced any challenges as a physical therapist assistant?

The job market in Idaho is flooded, so it’s difficult to find full-time work. I am trying to get my foot in wherever [I can] to get experience. Otherwise, I’m just sitting on my degree and license. Right now I’m working as a PRN, which is a physical therapy assistant that works as needed but doesn’t have regular shifts.

Experts predict the job market for physical therapist assistants is expected to grow. Has that growth hit yet?

I submitted resumes and cover letters to over twenty clinics and hospitals. There’s no need for physical therapy assistants. Most places are looking for physical therapists.

[However], there’s rumblings of Medicare changing the billing process. It sounds like clinics don’t need help now, but may later. For now, Medicare would rather bill for physical therapy services and would rather have the therapist treat the patient.

[Changes to Medicare coverage for] home health and skilled nursing won’t affect physical therapy assistants as much as changes for outpatient [settings]. Right now, there’s more Medicare coverage for Baby Boomers [going to] outpatient care.

So I’m not finding a job right now. [But] physical therapy is growing and may change with Medicare. I still want to stick with it.

Do you have advice for prospective students?

Take every opportunity to learn. With my application process, I had to shadow a physical therapy clinic for 16 hours. I had experience in outpatient settings, as well as [with] other clinics. Learn different settings and ask questions!

Bree Nicolello

Bree Nicolello

Writer

Bree is an urban planner and freelance writer based in Seattle, WA. She has worked on land use and housing policy issues throughout the Pacific Northwest. She previously led Run Oregon Run, a nonprofit dedicated to helping Oregonians run for office and apply to boards and commissions. When not writing, she is lovingly tending to her cast iron pans.

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