Career Paths for Physical Therapist Assistants

Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) are in high demand throughout the country right now. If you’re interested in a career in healthcare that doesn’t require more than two years of education and that will provide a good salary and job security, consider training to become a PTA. All PTAs do similar work, but there are many choices for where to work and even the option to continue your education and eventually become a fully licensed physical therapist (PT).

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What a PTA Does on the Job

A physical therapist assistant works under direct and indirect supervision of physical therapists. As a PTA, you will often work independently with patients but always under the guidance of a PT. PTAs work directly with patients, helping them do exercises, use equipment, and work on improving mobility or relieving pain. PTAs do not plan the treatment for patients, but they help execute the plans developed by supervising PTs.

How to Become a PTA

To become a PTA in any state you must complete an approved and accredited post-secondary program. You can find a list of programs approved in each state by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy online. After completing one of these two-year programs, you will need to pass a national exam and then apply for licensing in the state where you want to work. 

Types of Workplaces for PTAs

The kind of work that PTAs do limits the type of job or career path you can have. It is a very specific skill set that allows you to work where physical therapists work. Although the role you will play as a PTA is about the same everywhere, you do have a choice of different employers and workplaces:

  • Physical therapy private practice. Most PTAs work in physical therapy offices. These are private practices that offer PT services to people recovering from surgeries or injuries, with disabilities or with neurological conditions. The practice may be affiliated with or part of a surgical center.
  • Hospital. Hospitals hire physical therapy staff to help patients in acute situations. Here you’ll work with patients on a more short-term basis, with the goal of discharging them as soon as it is safe.
  • Rehabilitation facility. Hospitals or residential facilities that focus on physical rehabilitation hire PTAs to work with patients on a more long-term basis. Many patients discharged from acute hospital care are moved to these types of facilities. They may require intensive therapy for a few hours a day.
  • Nursing home. In a nursing home, PTAs work with ill, injured or elderly patients. Some may be there temporarily while they heal from illness, injury or surgery. Others live there permanently and may need regular, ongoing physical therapy to manage pain or improve movement.
  • Hospice. A hospice is a facility that provides palliative care to patients with terminal illnesses. PTAs work with these patients to help make them more comfortable and to help them maintain function as long as they can.
  • Sports medicine practice. Specialty physician offices that treat patients with sports injuries rely on PTAs and physical therapists as part of the treatment and rehabilitation process.
  • Home healthcare. Companies that provide people with in-home services hire PTAs to work with patients in their homes. PTAs travel to the home to provide rehabilitation services and to implement the plan developed by a PT.
  • Academic and research facilities. There may be a handful of opportunities as a PTA to work at a university or other research facility. PTAs may be needed to help patients participating in various types of medical or healthcare studies.

Becoming a Physical Therapist

Another career path to consider is becoming a physical therapist after working as a PTA. You will need to complete a doctor of physical therapy program, so it can take some time. But, you will have the foundational knowledge, and you should be able to find a program that will allow you to keep working while you earn another degree. There are also two bridge programs, at the University of Findlay (Ohio) and the University of Texas Galveston, that are specifically designed to take students from PTA to PT.

Physical therapists are responsible for diagnosing patients and planning courses of treatment. They also manage offices and supervise PTAs and physical therapist aides. PTs communicate with physicians and surgeons and evaluate patient progress, making changes to treatment as needed.

As a PTA, you can expect to find a job nearly anywhere in the U.S. as demand for licensed professionals continues to grow. You’ll have your choice of setting and a great foundation for working toward becoming a licensed physical therapist.