How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant

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4 Steps to Becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant

Step 1 Find an accredited physical therapist assistant program.

For the 2017-2018 academic year, the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education accredited more than 360 postsecondary programs, which typically last about two years and culminate in an associate degree.

Step 2 Pass the national licensure exam.

Physical therapist assistants are required to be licensed in all 50 states. The national physical therapy licensure examination is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.

Step 3 Gain clinical experience.

PTAs should obtain clinical experience working directly with patients to strengthen the skills they learned in college, as well as gain new insight into the field by working closely with licensed physical therapists.

Step 4 Obtain additional certifications.

Depending upon their desired specialty, physical therapist assistants often pursue additional credentials or certifications, such as functional training specialist, orthopedics, cardiovascular and pulmonary, oncology, neuromuscular or pediatrics. For many specialty certifications, LPTAs must complete a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical practice to meet eligibility requirements. Specialty exams administered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists consist of 200 questions designed to measure candidate’s knowledge of the advanced skills required to work in these specialty fields.

FAQ on Earning Your Physical Therapist Assistant Degree or Certification

Getting an education and earning licensure aren’t the only things aspiring physical therapist assistants need to know. Below are five frequently asked questions about additional aspects of the field of physical therapist assisting.

  • Continuing education and competence is a core requisite of maintaining licensure as a physical therapist assistant. However, each states has varying requirements for continuing education requirements. Licensed physical therapist assistants should check with their state board of physical therapy to ensure they stay abreast of continuing education requirements in their home state. In addition to continuing education credits, LPTAs also can attend conferences, complete exams and assessments, or complete physical therapist assistant residencies or fellowships to earn continuing education credits.

  • Education and scope of responsibilities are the primary factors that separate the two jobs. Physical therapist assistants have completed an accredited college degree program and passed the required national licensure exam, while physical therapy aides are only required to have a high school diploma or GED. PT aides typically gain experience on the job, and their duties are restricted since they don’t have the same scope of education as physical therapist assistants. PT aides also make much less – about $25,000 annually compared to $57,000 for physical therapist assistants.

  • The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties certifies physical therapists in specialties such as geriatrics, neurology, pediatrics, orthopedics, women’s health and more. These board-certified specialists often enlist physical therapy assistants in their duties. Physical therapist assistants skilled in these specialty fields often command higher wages than their peers who lack specialized training.

  • Candidates should contact the physical therapy board in their home state to determine eligibility requirements for the National Physical Therapy Exam. The American Physical Therapy Association provides great insight into the examination process. Each section of the five-part computer-administered exam has 50 questions, but only 200 are scored. Scores range from 200 to 800, and candidates must score a 600 or higher to pass the exam.

  • From 2013-2017, more than 84 percent of first-time candidates who graduated from accredited physical therapy programs passed the exam, and between 94 and 95 percent of candidates eventually passed the exam in each year. Licensure is valid for two years.

Physical Therapist Assistant Salary & Job Growth

With a rapidly aging senior population, demand for physical therapy assistants is on the rise – the field is projected to be one of the hottest employment sectors in the country in coming years. However, competition still could be stiff for jobs due to the low requirements for entry into the field.

Physical Therapy Assistant Salaries

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapy assistants earned median annual salaries of $57,430 in May of 2017. The top 10 percent of wage earners took home just under $80,000 annually, while the bottom 10 percent earned just over $35,000. Physical therapy assistant who worked in skilled nursing facilities earned more than the national average at $66,280, as did assistants who provided home health care services ($62,630).

Payscale.com pegs the average wage for licensed physical therapy assistants slightly lower at just under $50,000 per year. However, experienced LPTAs, and PT assistants who work in geriatrics enjoyed higher earnings. Physical therapy assistants who work in larger metropolitan areas also commanded stronger wages.

The chart below shows employment and mean annual wage data for each state for PT assistants:

Alabama Mean wage annual: $55,020
Currently Employed: 1,890
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 31%
Alaska Mean wage annual: N/A
Currently Employed: N/A
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 24%
Arizona Mean wage annual: $55,070
Currently Employed: 1,400
Change in Employment (2016-2026): N/A
Arkansas Mean wage annual: $56,510
Currently Employed: 1,010
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 31%
California Mean wage annual: $60,780
Currently Employed: 5,120
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 31%
Colorado Mean wage annual: $52,780
Currently Employed: 1,270
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 43%
Connecticut Mean wage annual: $61,470
Currently Employed: 680
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 22%
Delaware Mean wage annual: $57,140
Currently Employed: 350
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 24%
Florida Mean wage annual: $62,710
Currently Employed: 5,880
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 36%
Georgia Mean wage annual: $53,980
Currently Employed: 2,170
Change in Employment (2016-2026): 35%
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Job Outlook for Physical Therapy Assistants

There were approximately 140,300 physical therapy assistants working in 2016, and employment is expected to increase by 27,400 new positions through 2026, the BLS reports. That’s a 31 percent increase, much greater than the national average of 7 percent for all occupations.

Baby Boomers are projected to be a prime driver of the need for skilled physical therapy assistants, the BLS notes. As they continue to age, many of them will suffer from debilitating conditions such as heart attack, stroke, and other conditions that will require rehabilitation through physical therapy. Additionally, the country’s continued battles with obesity, diabetes and other health-related conditions will impact the field since physical therapists and assistants will be needed to help this demographic regain or maintain mobility.

Job opportunities are expected to be strongest in skilled nursing facilities, as well as in home health care settings and outpatient orthopedic facilities. Although pay is often higher in metropolitan areas, job prospects should be stronger in rural areas where there isn’t as much competition for employment.

Finding a Physical Therapist Assistant Program

Students should take into consideration a variety of factors before enrolling in a physical therapist assistant program. However, accreditation should trump all other decisions since students can only sit for the national licensure exam if they have completed a program that’s been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.

Choosing the right program

In addition to standard considerations prior to enrolling in college, such as cost of tuition, financial aid or scholarship opportunities, program length and the types of degrees offered, students considering a physical therapist assistant program should also weight these factors:

  • Length of time for clinical instruction and setting
  • PTA class size and overall college size
  • Licensure exam pass rates
  • Program curriculum

Many physical therapist assistant programs offer classroom instruction online. Coursework typically includes study in anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, clinical pathology, communications, behavioral sciences and neurology. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, roughly 75 percent of PTA coursework is lab and classroom study, and the remaining 25 percent is clinical experience. Students on average complete about 16 weeks of full-time clinical work in most programs.

Lastly, there are two colleges that offer CAPTE-accredited bridge programs from physical therapist assistant to physical therapist for LPTAs who wish to continue their education and become physical therapists.

PTA students can use the search tool below to find programs in their home state.

State
Degree Level
School Type
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Professional Physical Therapist Assistant Associations & Groups

Networking is an important aspect of many allied health professions. Physical therapy assistants can join one of the professional organizations below to increase their personal and professional network, find continuing education and continuing competence resources, industry news and trends and more.

  • American Physical Therapy Association

    More than 100,000 physical therapy assistants and physical therapists are members of the APTA. The association advocates for public awareness and understanding of the role physical therapists and physical therapist assistants play in healthcare, as well as provides resources for education, opportunities for career development and job listings.

  • Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy

    In addition to providing the licensure exam for physical therapy assistants, the FSBPT support PT assistants with many different professional and regulatory resources.

  • World Confederation for Physical Therapy

    The sole global organization dedicated to physical therapists and related occupations has more than 450,000 members. The non-profit confederation consists of five geographical regions – Africa, Asia Western Pacific, European, North American Caribbean, and South America.

  • Student Assembly of the American Physical Therapy Association

    Organization comprised of physical therapist assistant students. Provides resources and information about educational issues, news, networking opportunities, a career center, and mentoring/leadership opportunities for PTA students.

  • APTA National Student Conclave

    This annual event connects physical therapy assistant students from across the nation. Students network with physical therapists, peers, industry leaders, mentors and others in the field.

10 Additional Resources for Physical Therapist Assistants

Professional organizations are but one way physical therapy assistants can gain new skills or find continuing education resources. The following sites, apps and industry journals also can help LPTAs advance their professional careers or help students successfully find and complete an accredited PTA degree program.

  • CAPTE Accredited PTA program directory

    PTA students can find accredited programs in their home state or accredited online programs.

  • PTA Advanced Proficiency Pathways

    The American Physical Therapy Association’s PTA APPs are post-graduation educational curriculum designed to help licensed PTAs gain the skills necessary to work in specialty areas of physical therapy assisting.

  • Academy of Neurologic Physical Therapy

    Provides education, research, a career center and news of advancements in the field of neurological physical therapy.

  • MedBridge

    Offers a hundreds of different physical therapy courses on a wide range of topics.

  • Better Movement

    Site that has compiled several hundred free, well-documented articles that focus on the science of movement, neuroscience of motor control, movement variability and other key topics in the field of physical therapy.

  • GetMyROM

    This app is a range-of-motion inclinometer. Records key metrics such as start, stop and total range of motion, type of joint, and flexion, extension or abduction.

  • Essential Anatomy

    This app can help PTA students ace the important anatomy and physiology requirements in college. Essential Anatomy contains more than 4,000 highly detailed overviews of anatomical structures and 10 complete body systems in 3D.

  • PhysioU

    Online rehab guide for both students and LPTAs.

  • Physical Therapy

    International journal for research into the field of physical therapy and its association professions, such as physical therapy assisting.

  • APTA scholarships page

    Learn more about the many different scholarships and aid opportunities for physical therapist assistant students.