How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant: Career Roadmap
Research the requirements to become a physical therapist assistant. Learn about the job description and duties and read the step-by-step process to start a career in physical therapy.
Requirements for Physical Therapist Assistants
Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) help people with health-related conditions or medical problems that cause pain and limit their mobility. Increasing strength and coordination, helping patients perform exercises and stretches, and training patients to walk with canes, walkers or crutches are the typical duties of a physical therapist assistant.
Many physical therapist assistants also track patient progress and educate patients and families on what they can do after they finish treatment. They 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. In most states, an associate degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant program is the education required to pursue employment in the field, in addition to meeting state licensing requirements. The following table contains the core requirements for physical therapist assistants.
|Degree Level||Associate degree is standard*|
|Degree Field||Physical therapist assistant education***|
|Licensure||Licensing required in most states***|
|Experience||Employers generally prefer applicants with at least one year of experience**|
|Key Skills||Strong interpersonal and communication skills, detail-oriented, compassionate, enjoys helping others, ability to bend, kneel, stand and stoop for long periods of time, organized, comfortable working with their hands*|
|Additional Requirements||CPR certification**|
Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), **Monster.com job postings (August 2012), ***American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).
Step 1: Earn an Associate Degree
In most states, individuals will need a physical therapist assistant associate degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) to pursue this position. 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 in 2012, 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 will work in a patient setting and gain hands-on experience in a variety of treatment centers. Students will be expected to apply the skills and knowledge gained while under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist or physical therapist assistant.
- 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 to develop people skills and learn how to interact with patients. These experiences can help students develop the interpersonal and communications skills that are needed to succeed in this profession.
- Use clinical requirements to gain work experience. Although previous work experience is not always required to find employment as a physical therapist assistant, many employers prefer candidates with experience. Since some degree programs require students to complete as many as 16 weeks of full-time clinical work, students have plenty of time to develop the real-world experience valued by many employers. During this time, students can learn to follow a physical therapist's care plan, work as part of a health care team and practice interventions. By developing the skills that employers are seeking while still in school, students can make themselves more marketable following graduation.
- Gain experience in a high demand specialty. Employment is expected to increase 45% from 2010-2020 for PTAs, and the BLS predicted that job opportunities would be especially favorable in settings that involve working with the elderly. This includes areas of skilled nursing, acute hospital and orthopedic settings. By participating in clinical rotations within these types of settings, students can improve job prospects and become candidates that are more competitive after they graduate.
Step 2: Obtain Licensure
Although licensing requirements may vary for each state, passing the National Physical Therapy Exam is a necessary requirement for all states. The exam is multiple choice and contains five sections. Some states may require physical therapist assistants to take other exams or continuing education courses. Students should contact their state licensing board to obtain regional information.
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