Physical Therapist Assistant and PT Aide

Physical therapy assistance is one of the fastest growing fields in the United States and is expected to grow by a whopping 26 percent between 2018 and 2028. In fact, the United States Bureau of Employment and Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts the addition of almost 40,000 physical therapist assistant (PTA) and physical therapy aide (PT aide) jobs as the need for physical therapy grows. This increase is in large part due to an aging population and increased prevalence of chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

PTAs and PT aides typically work in offices, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, or home healthcare settings that provide one-on-one care. Some of the patients they work with may include those who have neurological disorders that impact movement, such as a stroke; work- or sport-related injuries; and more.

It’s important to note that PTAs perform different duties and have greater education and licensing requirements than physical therapist aides. While both work in a physical therapy setting, PT aides typically have a high school diploma or GED or GED and are not required to get licensed. They gain experience through on-the-job training, performing indirect patient care by performing clerical duties, setting and cleaning up treatment areas, and moving patients.

On the other hand, PTAs work under the supervision and direction of a physical therapist to provide treatment, rehabilitation, or preventive care to people of all ages. They work closely with patients, monitoring and reporting their status and progress to the physical therapist over the course of their treatment. Care and treatment options may include exercises, hands-on therapy, and assistive equipment. Recovery plans range from short- to long-term care depending on the injury or illness.

All PTAs are required to obtain a high school diploma or GED and complete an associate’s degree from a PTA program accredited through the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Coursework typically includes clinical pathology, biology, anatomy, physiology, and ethics, and an average of 16 weeks of full-time supervised clinical education to obtain hands-on experience.

Those interested in PTA or working as a PT aide should demonstrate compassion, attention to detail, and interpersonal skills as they largely work one-on-one with patients. They should also have dexterity and physical stamina, as they spend most of the day on their feet, providing manual treatment or assisting patients with exercises and movement.

Read on to discover how to become a PTA, including education and licensure requirements, or pursue a career as a PT aide.

PTA and PT Aide Specializations & Degree Types

PTAs need an associate’s degree from a CAPTE-accredited physical therapist assistant program. These two-year programs provide coursework in physical therapy, general education, and clinical education.

Note that associate’s degrees are offered in both occupational and academic formats. Occupational associate’s degrees, offered as an associate of occupational studies (AOS) or associate of applied science (AAS), are structured to provide a fast-track to the workforce and typically require limited to no general education courses. On the other hand, an academic associate’s degree includes general education coursework and is designed to be transferable to an undergraduate program for completion of a bachelor’s degree. These typically include an associate of arts (AA) degree or an associate of science (AS) degree.

Roughly three-fourths of PTA degree programs take place in a lab or classroom, where students may also pursue additional certifications such as first aid skills. Physical therapy coursework may include anatomy and physiology, exercise physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, neuroscience, clinical pathology, behavioral sciences, communication, and ethics/values. The remaining 25 percent of study consists of supervised clinical education.

According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), students spend an average of 16 weeks gaining full-time, hands-on experience. Degree programs for PTAs do not offer specializations. Accordingly, those interested in gaining experience within a certain industry, such as skilled nursing facilities or sports, will want to select a degree program with curriculum and clinical education opportunities that fit that area.

While PTA programs are not ranked, the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) has accredited over 350 associate’s degree programs as of March 2020. Some programs may be offered partially online through a hybrid delivery option.

Every state and territory in the United States requires PTAs to obtain an associate’s degree from an accredited program and get licensed. Licensure requirements vary by state, so PTAs should always check with the state licensing board for the state in which they want to practice.

PT aides are required to have a high school diploma or GED and learn on-the-job.

Admissions Requirements for Physical Therapist Assitant Programs

Admissions requirements are determined by individual schools, as there is no centralized application for PTA programs. Some schools may have a more selective admissions process and require a competitive, point-based process. Students typically apply to PTA programs on an annual basis. Depending on the school, the number of accepted students may range from 12 to 50 or more.

Admissions requirements may include completion of prerequisite courses with a minimum cumulative GPA, as well as the ability to meet writing requirements through the evaluation of a personal statement or essay. Prerequisite courses may include biology, algebra, psychology, and English or composition. Lastly, some programs may require students to provide recommendation letters or complete a certain number of observation hours within a clinical setting.

Students interested in applying to a physical therapist assistant program should check with admissions offices for further information about requirements.

Physical Therapist Assistant Program Accreditation

As mentioned above, PTA programs are accredited through the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), which is recognized by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA). Graduation from a CAPTE-accredited program is required to apply for state licensure to work as a physical therapist assistant.

PTA programs with CAPTE accreditation have demonstrated that they meet professional standards and have adequately prepared students to enter the field. Accreditation is the process of using peer review to evaluate the educational quality of an institution or program of study at a specific institution. This system does not rank programs against one another. Instead, accreditation examines whether a program has the curriculum, instruction, and practices to set up students for success as physical therapist assistants. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is the professional board for physical therapist assistants and sponsors CAPTE, as well as provides staff support.

On-Campus Physical Therapist Assistant Degree Programs

Baker College – College of Health Science

The College of Health Science at Baker College offers a dynamic associate of applied science (AAS) for those looking to take the next step in their career as a PTA. The 78-credit program provides coursework in topics such as human anatomy and physiology, psychology, communication, patient assessment, pediatric management, and more. Notably, the program also requires three clinical placements so students can gain full-time, hands-on experience.

This program has limited enrollment, meaning admission is more selective than other programs offered on campus. Admission to the program is based on a point-based scale. Students are awarded points based on their grades in required prerequisite courses and their ability to pass an assessment. The top-ranked students are accepted to the program. Students must have a high school diploma or GED, pass a background check, and be able to perform physical activities.

  • Location(s): Allen Park, Auburn Hills, Flint, Muskegon (Michigan)
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Tuition: $405 per credit-hour

Cerritos College

The competitive PTA program at Cerritos College only accepts 32 applicants every year and is known for diverse clinical education opportunities. Students accepted into this program are placed in clinics and hospitals as early as the second semester of their first year, providing students the opportunity to work in a variety of settings with a wide array of patient populations. The program is 44 credits and includes coursework in kinesiology, pathology, neurology, aging, and more.

Notably, Cerritos College offers a course focusing on licensure examination preparation so students are set up for success. Over two-thirds of students pass their licensure exam on the first try!

Admission to this academic associate’s program is by application only and is through a point-based system. Competitive applicants have excellent grades in science and math prerequisite coursework and general education coursework, as well as work experience in physical therapy settings. Furthermore, prospective students must be able to demonstrate acceptable scores on college placement tests for writing, mathematics, and reading. Students must have a high school diploma or GED to apply, as well as proof or ability to obtain required immunizations and health screenings.

  • Location: Cerritos, California
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Tuition: $285 per credit-hour

Online or Hybrid Physical Therapist Assistant Degree Programs

While there are no fully online PTA degree programs due to the need for in-person labs and clinical experiences, there are a number of hybrid options available. A hybrid program enables students to take certain courses online, allowing greater flexibility while ensuring students are able to access on-campus lab and clinical education components. The programs profiled below offer a hybrid delivery for those looking to pursue a career as a PTA.

Clark State Community College – Health, Human and Public Services Division

With an emphasis on flexibility for working professionals and parents, Clark State Community College provides a hybrid degree program for those wishing to dive into a new career as a PTA. Students are able to maximize their education experience by taking courses online and then participating in on-site labs at Clark State’s campuses in Columbus or Springfield.

The 65-credit program results in an associate of applied science (AAS) in PTA. Highlighted coursework includes medical terminology, rehabilitation, anatomy and physiology, lifespan human growth and development, and psychology. Clinical education work takes place in the summer after the first year. These “clinicals” consist of three full-time rotations that are four, five, and seven weeks respectively.

Admission to this program is competitive, so students are ranked based on the strength of their application. At minimum, students must get an adequate score through the ACCUPLACER assessment to demonstrate college writing, reading, and mathematical readiness. They must also complete prerequisite coursework in biology, chemistry, and physics with a grade of “C” or better, as well as have a minimum 2.5 GPA. Finally, students should complete 60 hours of observation, volunteer, or work experience in three different clinical settings under the supervision of a physical therapist or PTA. Note that a high school diploma or GED, as well as ability to pass a background check, are required to apply.

  • Location: Springfield, Ohio or Columbus, Ohio
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Tuition: $292.66 per credit-hour

Whatcom Community College

Whatcom Community College provides a rigorous, hybrid PTA program that prepares students for a competitive job market. Courses are taken entirely online and students are required to come to campus for on-site labs just one weekend a month, making this program ideal for part-time students balancing other responsibilities. Notably, students may attend lab sections at a number of locations throughout the Puget Sound region.

The 84-credit program offers coursework including clinical neurology, ethical issues in physical therapy, anatomy and pathophysiology, and applied anatomy and clinical kinesiology. Clinical experience starts in the second year, where students take four internship courses that provide a combined 720 hours of clinical experience.

Admission to this program is competitive and consideration of applicants for admission are ranked by a committee and based on points. Students must submit a personal statement; undergo a background check; pass an online assessment demonstrating readiness for online or hybrid learning; submit a recommendation; complete 25 hours of work, volunteer, or observational experience in a physical therapy facility; and complete prerequisite and general education coursework with a minimum grade of “C+” or better. However, applicants with a cumulative 3.3 GPA or higher are considered competitive. A high school diploma or GED is required to apply.

  • Location: Bellingham, Washington
  • Duration: Two years and three months
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE)
  • Tuition: $294.13 per credit-hour

How Long Does it Take to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant or PT Aide?

Those working to become a PT assistant who already have a high school diploma or GED typically take an average of two to three years to complete an associate’s degree program, successfully pass the National Physical Therapy Assistants Exam, and apply for their license. Those without a high school diploma or GED may take six to seven years to receive their diploma, complete an associate’s degree program, and complete exam and licensure requirements.

On the other hand, it typically takes an average of several months to become a PT aide for those who already have a high school diploma or GED. This includes the time to apply for jobs and receive any on-the-job training. There are no licensing or certification requirements.

How To Become a Physical Therapist Assistant or PT Aide – Step-by-Step Guide

Those interested in becoming a physical therapist assistant will need to obtain an associate’s degree from a CAPTE-accredited physical therapist assistant program, pass an exam, and apply for a license. State licensing boards may include additional requirements for licensure.

PT aides are not required to obtain a post-secondary degree, take additional examinations, or get licensed. Note that allowed job functions for PT aides may vary by state.

Generally, those pursuing a career as a physical therapist assistant or PT aide will need to do the following:

Step 1: Obtain Your High School Diploma or GED (Four Years)

Both PTAs and PT aides are required to obtain a high school diploma or GED. After completing high school, the next step for those interested in becoming a PTA is to apply for an associate’s degree from a CAPTE-accredited PTA program.

Those interested in becoming a PT aide can skip the remaining steps and dive into applying for jobs.

Step 2: Apply to a CAPTE-Accredited PTA Program (Three to Four Years)

Admissions requirements for programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) vary by school. However, most require the completion of prerequisite coursework in science, math, and English. Some schools may also require students to provide recommendations or observe a clinical setting for a certain number of hours.

Step 2: Complete a CAPTE-Accredited PTA Program (Two Years)

Once admitted, students will likely take coursework in physical therapy and general education. Coursework may include anatomy, clinical pathology, biomechanics, and more. Students are also required to complete supervised clinical education, which typically consists of 16 weeks of full-time, hands-on experience in a clinical setting.

Obtaining an associate’s degree from a PTA program typically takes two years to complete.

Step 3: Take the National Physical Therapy Assistants Examination (Less Than One Year)

Licensure requirements vary state-by-state. However, all states require passage of the National Physical Therapy Assistants Examination for physical therapist assistants. This exam is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT).

Step 4: Apply for PTA Licensure (Less Than One Year)

Ready to apply for licensure? Future PTAs applying should check with the licensing board for the state they want to work in. Additional requirements may apply, such as passing a jurisprudence exam that tests knowledge of state-specific laws and regulations, or obtaining first aid certifications like basic life support (BLS).

Step 5: Maintain PTA Licensure Requirements (Timeline Varies by Jurisdiction)

Congratulations! Those who passed their NPTE exam and successfully received their license may now work as a PTA. Note that most states require licensed PTAs to stay current on state laws and regulations, new trends, and treatments by completing a certain number of continuing education courses. License renewal is commonly conditioned on demonstrating the completion of these courses. Maintain licensure by meeting all continuing education requirements, as well as additional requirements that may be imposed by individual state licensing boards.

What Do Physical Therapist Assistants and PT Aides Do?

PTAs work under the direction and supervision of physical therapists to provide patient care and treatment. They commonly work with patients to help them recover from injuries and illnesses that affect their movement and mobility. Unlike PT aides, they are involved in the direct treatment of patients. Treatment options may include “exercise, massage, gait and balance training, and other therapeutic interventions.”

Alternatively, PT aides may perform clerical work, help move patients, and prepare and clean up treatment areas.

Both PTAs and PT aides spend a lot of time on their feet, as they set up equipment and work with patients. They may also have to lift or help patients move. While most PTAs and PT aides work typical business hours, others may work nights and businesses depending on the office setting. For example, skilled nursing facilities may require them to work nights and weekends to support older patients who require long-term, chronic care as part of their day-to-day life.

While a PTA’s daily activities can vary by industry, an average day may include:

  • Observing patient status and progress before, during, and post-treatment
  • Noting and reporting patient status to the physical therapist
  • Helping patients do specific exercises and provide treatment as part of their plan of care
  • Providing patient care using manual treatments, such as stretching and massage
  • Using supportive equipment and devices, such as exercise balls, to help patients
  • Working with the patient and their friends and family on post-care activities and options

A typical day for a PT aide may consist of:

  • Preparing treatment areas for patient use, including setting and cleaning up
  • Cleaning treatment areas and moving equipment to maintain functionality
  • Assist with patient intake and other clerical duties
  • Working with physical therapists and PTAs to observe and document patient progress and responses
  • Coordinate with physicians’ offices and hospital personnel
  • Transport patients to and from treatment areas

PTAs and PT Aides Certifications & Licensure

Each state and territory in the United States requires PTAs to get licensed in the state they want to practice in. Those seeking licensure should apply and graduate from a CAPTE-accredited PTA degree program. They must also pass the National Physical Therapy Assistants Exam for PTAs, which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.

Additional requirements may include a background check, jurisprudence exam on state laws and practices, and proof of minimum age (typically 18). Furthermore, some states may require PTAs to take a certain number of continuing education courses or maintain certification in specific life skills, such as CPR. Always check with the appropriate state board for specific licensing requirements.

PT aides are not required to get licensed or maintain any certifications.

How Much Do Physical Therapist Assistants and PT Aides Make?

There are over 148,200 PTAs and PT aides currently employed in the United States. As one of the country’s fastest growing careers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts the addition of 38,000 jobs between 2018 and 2028—a 26 percent increase, more than five times the expected growth among all occupations during the same decade (5 percent).

The demand for PTAs and PT aides is expected to continue as the Baby Boomer generation ages and their risk of heart attack, stroke, and other mobility-related injuries increases. Furthermore, this generation is likely to live longer than previous generations and on average is active later in life. This makes the work of PTAs and PT aides, particularly in the areas of long-term and chronic care, essential to providing the highest quality of patient care and treatment.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, PTAs had an average annual salary of $57,750 in 2018. Note the average annual salary differs by industry. PTAs working in skilled nursing facilities have the highest average salary at $66,440 whereas those working in physicians’ offices had the lowest average salary at $54,360. Other industries include home healthcare services ($62,340); offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists ($56,760); and local, state, and private hospitals ($56,180).

  • 10th percentile: $33,780
  • 50th percentile (median): $58,040
  • 90th percentile: $79,810

Alternatively, PT aides had an annual average salary of $28,500 in 2018. PT aides working in government had the highest annual salary at $32,160, followed by those working in skilled nursing facilities, who had an annual salary of $31,040. Other industries include local, state, and private hospitals ($28,960); physicians’ offices ($27,260); and offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists ($24,830).

  • 10th percentile: $20,040
  • 50th percentile (median): $26,240
  • 90th percentile: $39,230
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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