Career Guide for Physical Therapist Aides

Physical therapy is an expanding profession as the population grows older and as the younger generations become more active in extreme sports. Physical therapists work with patients to increase mobility and relieve pain.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to have a successful career as a physical therapist.

Physical Therapist Summary

  • Employment is projected to grow much faster than average.
  • Physical therapist assistants should have very good job prospects; on the other hand, aides may face keen competition from the large pool of qualified applicants.
  • Aides usually learn skills on the job, while physical therapist assistants have an associate degree; most States require licensing for assistants.
  • Most jobs are in offices of other health practitioners and in hospitals.

Working as a Physical Therapist

Physical therapist assistants and aides help physical therapists to provide treatment that improves patient mobility, relieves pain, and prevents or lessens physical disabilities of patients. A physical therapist might ask a physical therapist assistant to help patients exercise or learn to use crutches, for example, or an aide to gather and prepare therapy equipment. Patients include accident victims and individuals with disabling conditions such as lower-back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries, and cerebral palsy.

Physical therapist assistants assist physical therapists in providing care to patients. Under the direction and supervision of physical therapists, they provide exercise, instruction; therapeutic methods like electrical stimulation, mechanical traction, and ultrasound; massage; and gait and balance training. Physical therapist assistants record the patient’s responses to treatment and report the outcome of each treatment to the physical therapist.

Physical therapist aides help make therapy sessions productive, under the direct supervision of a physical therapist or physical therapist assistant. They usually are responsible for keeping the treatment area clean and organized and for preparing for each patient’s therapy. When patients need assistance moving to or from a treatment area, aides assist in their transport. Because they are not licensed, aides do not perform the clinical tasks of a physical therapist assistant in States where licensure is required.

The duties of aides include some clerical tasks, such as ordering depleted supplies, answering the phone, and filling out insurance forms and other paperwork. The extent to which an aide or an assistant performs clerical tasks depends on the needs and organization of the facility.

Work environment. Physical therapist assistants and aides need a moderate degree of strength because of the physical exertion required in assisting patients with their treatment. In some cases, assistants and aides need to lift patients. Frequent kneeling, stooping, bending, and standing for long periods also are part of the job.

The hours and days that physical therapist assistants and aides work vary with the facility. About 28 percent of all physical therapist assistants and aides work part-time. Many outpatient physical therapy offices and clinics have evening and weekend hours, to coincide with patients’ personal schedules.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most physical therapy aides are trained on the job, while almost all physical therapist assistants earn an associate degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant program. Most States require licensing for physical therapist assistants.

Education and training. Employers typically require physical therapy aides to have a high school diploma. They are trained on the job, and most employers provide clinical on-the-job training.

In most States, physical therapist assistants are required by law to hold an associate degree. The American Physical Therapy Association’s Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education accredits postsecondary physical therapy assistant programs. In 2009, there were 223 accredited programs, which usually last 2 years and culminate in an associate degree.

Programs are divided into academic coursework and hands-on clinical experience. Academic coursework includes algebra, English, anatomy and physiology, and psychology. Clinical work includes certifications in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and other first aid, and field experience in treatment centers. Both educators and prospective employers view clinical experience as essential to ensuring that students understand the responsibilities of a physical therapist assistant.

Licensure. Licensing is not required to practice as a physical therapy aide. However, most States regulate physical therapist assistants through licensure, registration, or certification. Most States require physical therapist assistants to graduate from an accredited education program and pass the National Physical Therapy Exam. Some States may require physical therapy assistants to pass State exams. Many States also require continuing education credits for physical therapist assistants to maintain licensure. Complete information on regulations can be obtained from State licensing boards.

Other qualifications. Physical therapist assistants and aides should be well-organized, detail oriented, and caring. They should be able to take direction and work well in a team situation. They usually have strong interpersonal skills and a desire to help people in need.

Advancement. Some physical therapist aides advance to become therapist assistants after gaining experience and completing an accredited education program.

Some physical therapist assistants advance their knowledge and skills in a variety of clinical areas after graduation. The American Physical Therapy Association recognizes physical therapist assistants who have gained additional skills in geriatric, pediatric, musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, integumentary, and cardiopulmonary physical therapy. Physical therapist assistants may also advance in non-clinical areas, like administrative positions. These positions might include organizing all the assistants in a large physical therapy organization or acting as the director for a specific department such as aquatic therapy. Physical therapist assistants may also pursue a career in teaching at an accredited physical therapist assistant academic program.

Employment as a Physical Therapist

Physical therapist assistants and aides held about 109,900 jobs in 2008. Physical therapist assistants held about 63,800 jobs; physical therapist aides held 46,100. Both work with physical therapists in a variety of settings. About 72 percent of jobs were in offices of other health practitioners and in hospitals. Others worked primarily in nursing care facilities, home healthcare services, and outpatient care centers.

Job Outlook

Employment is expected to grow much faster than average because of increasing demand for physical therapy services. Job prospects for physical therapist assistants are expected to be very good. Aides may experience keen competition for jobs.

Employment change. Employment of physical therapist assistants and aides is expected to grow by 35 percent from 2008 through 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations. Changes to restrictions on reimbursement for physical therapy services by third-party payers will increase patient access to services and, thus, increase demand. The increasing number of people who need therapy reflects, in part, the increasing elderly population. The elderly population is particularly vulnerable to chronic and debilitating conditions that require therapeutic services. These patients often need additional assistance in their treatment, making the roles of assistants and aides vital. In addition, the large baby-boom generation is entering the prime age for heart attacks and strokes, further increasing the demand for cardiac and physical rehabilitation.

Medical and technological developments should permit an increased percentage of trauma victims and newborns with birth defects to survive, creating added demand for therapy and rehabilitative services.

Physical therapists are expected to increasingly use assistants and aides to reduce the cost of physical therapy services. Once a patient is evaluated and a treatment plan is designed by the physical therapist, the physical therapist assistant can provide many parts of the treatment, as directed by the therapist.

Job prospects. Opportunities for individuals interested in becoming physical therapist assistants are expected to be very good; with help from physical therapist assistants, physical therapists are able to manage more patients. However, physical therapy aides may face keen competition from the large pool of qualified individuals. In addition to employment growth, job openings will result from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation permanently. Job opportunities should be particularly good in acute hospital, skilled nursing, and orthopedic settings, where the elderly are most often treated. Job prospects should be especially favorable in rural areas, as many physical therapists tend to cluster in highly populated urban and suburban areas.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
Physical therapist assistants and aides 31-2020 109,900 147,800 37,900 35
Physical therapist assistants 31-2021 63,800 85,000 21,200 33
Physical therapist aides 31-2022 46,100 62,800 16,700 36
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Physical Therapist Aides

Median annual wages of physical therapist assistants were $46,140 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $37,170 and $54,900. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $28,580, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $63,830. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of physical therapist assistants in May 2008 were:

Home health care services $51,950
Nursing care facilities 51,090
General medical and surgical hospitals 45,510
Offices of other health practitioners 44,580
Offices of physicians 43,390

Median annual wages of physical therapist aides were $23,760 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $19,910 and $28,670. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $17,270, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $33,540. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of physical therapy aides in May 2008 were:

Nursing care facilities $26,530
General medical and surgical hospitals 24,780
Specialty (except psychiatric and substance abuse) hospitals 24,590
Offices of physicians 23,730
Offices of other health practitioners 22,550

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