How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant in 5 Steps
Physical therapist assistants work under the supervision of a physical therapist and help clients with their treatment plans. Learn about the educational and licensure requirements for this job, and review how you can gain experience in the field and advance your career. Schools offering Allied Health degrees can also be found in these popular choices.
What Is a Physical Therapy Assistant?
A physical therapy assistant is a medical technician who supports physical therapists by providing rehabilitative treatment to patients. Your therapy-related duties could include conferring with the therapist about treatment plans and explaining the exercises to patients. You might need to transfer and position patients on therapy equipment and motivate or encourage them during exercise sessions. You could administer light, heat, electrical or sound stimulation or help fit patients with braces and prosthetic devices. During and following therapy sessions, you could compile and maintain medical records that document treatment progress.
Step 1: Prepare in High School
In a limited number of cases, a high school diploma or GED might be enough education to become an assistant. Although high schools typically don't offer physical therapy courses, you can start to prepare for the occupation by taking courses in biology, health, algebra and physics.
Step 2: Earn an Associate's Degree
Many states require you to have an associate's degree to work in this field. Degree programs are available from community, vocational and technical colleges, medical schools and private, for-profit schools. Programs use a combination of classroom study, labs and clinical internships to train you to perform therapeutic techniques, gather research, use medical technology and interact with patients and colleagues. Common course topics include kinesiology, functional anatomy and medical terminology.
Step 3: Obtain a License
In most states, you need a credential to practice, whether it's registration, certification or licensure. Completing an accredited training program and passing the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) are typical state requirements. Some states could also have developed an exam of their own that you have to pass instead of or in addition to the NPTE. To maintain your license, you might have to earn continuing education credits.
Step 4: Get Experience
Your primary experience could be obtained through a degree program. Most physical therapy assistant programs include clinical practicums or internships that allow you to learn by working under an experienced professional. Once you graduate, you could work in a wide assortment of potential settings. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the two largest include hospitals and the private offices of physical therapists (www.bls.gov). Nursing homes, home health care services and physicians' offices are other possibilities.
Step 5: Advance Your Career
One avenue of advancement in the field would be to choose a specialization. Some of your options include neuromuscular, musculoskeletal, pediatric and geriatric therapy. You could also advance to an administrative position, supervising therapy assistants or managing an entire department. If you want to become a physical therapist, you'll need to earn a post-baccalaureate or master's degree. You might need to complete a bachelor's degree program in order to qualify for admission to a graduate program in physical therapy.
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