Physical therapist assistants work under the supervision of a physical therapist to assist patients in improving mobility, relieving pain and preventing or minimizing future physical impairment. They work with people who have been injured or who have a disability due to back pain, arthritis, cerebral palsy, heart disease, fractures or other bodily injuries. Their clients’ treatment plans can include exercise or equipment that enables them to move around more efficiently.
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While a physical therapist develops patient treatment plans, physical therapist assistants help with instruction and therapy, including ultrasound, massage, stimulation tools and balance coordination. They also record patients’ reactions, progress and outcomes in reports to a physical therapist. Other duties of physical therapist assistants may include helping patients with devices such as crutches or leg braces. At times they may be called upon to answer the phone, order supplies and fill out forms, or they may supervise a physical therapist aide that performs such administrative and clerical tasks.
Physical Therapist Assistants Summary
- In most states, physical therapist assistants must hold an associate’s degree in the field and be licensed.
- Physical therapist assistants may specialize in a clinical area of therapy such as musculoskeletal, pediatric, cardiopulmonary or neuromuscular therapy.
- The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts employment in this field to grow faster than average.
Work Environment for Physical Therapists
It is essential for physical therapist assistants to have a good degree of strength, as they often exert themselves while assisting patients with physical activities. Their work may involve lifting patients from a bed to a wheelchair or other supportive aide. They frequently need to bend, stoop, kneel and stand for long periods of time as part of their job.
The work hours of physical therapist assistants may vary depending on the facility and employer. The BLS notes that about 28% of assistants worked part-time in 2008. In outpatient facilities, assistants may be required to work nights and weekends in order to meet the needs of patients with busy schedules.
Education, Training and Licensing
Most states require assistants to hold an associate’s degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant program. Accreditation is granted by the American Physical Therapy Association’s Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. These programs generally last two years and involve both coursework and clinical field work. Courses typically include math, English, psychology and anatomy. Certification in CPR and first aid are required for clinical field work. Clinical experience is desired by most employers in order to ensure that applicants are knowledgeable about the duties of the job.
After completing the educational requirement, individuals must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam. Some states require individuals to take state examinations, as well. Continuing education is necessary to maintain licensing as a physical therapy assistant.
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Some physical therapist assistants specialize in areas such as pediatric, geriatric, musculoskeletal, cardiopulmonary and neuromuscular therapy. These specializations are recognized through the American Physical Therapy Association.
Physical Therapist Assistants Salary, Employment Figures and Jobs Outlook
Physical therapist assistants held approximately 63,750 jobs in May 2009, according to research published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Most of these positions were in the offices of healthcare practitioners and physicians, hospitals, nursing care facilities and home healthcare services.
Employment in this field is projected by the BLS to grow much faster than average compared to other occupations. This is due in part to the easing of reimbursement restrictions for treatments, which allow more patients access to these services. In addition, the growing elderly population is resulting in a demand for physical therapy services.
BLS records for May 2009 indicate that the average annual wage for physical therapist assistants was $48,590. The middle 50% earned between $39,070 and $57,780, while the lowest 10% brought in about $30,400 per year. The highest 10% had an annual salary of $66,460 or more.