There are approximately 110,000 physical therapist assistants and aides in the United States; of those, 64,000 are assistants and the remaining 46,000 are aides. Job-growth statistics indicate that over the next ten years, this occupation will grow at an amazing 35 percent rate, making it one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country. This growth is far above the average rate of growth for all occupations. While physical therapist assistants will have little trouble finding jobs, aides will find considerable competition due to the number of qualified job applicants.
Physical therapist assistants and aides support physical therapists in their efforts to improve mobility and eliminate or minimize pain for patients. Some patients suffer from a chronic condition like heart disease, cerebral palsy, or arthritis. Others need physical therapy due to an accident of some kind.
Physical therapist assistants typically have an associate’s degree. Some states require licensing as well; others do not. They work under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist to help patients with exercise and teach them to use crutches or other devices. They might use electrical stimulation, massage, ultrasound, mechanical traction, or gait and balance training. Assistants must also document their efforts together with the patient’s response and let the physical therapist know about any problems or issues.
Physical therapist aides are also supervised directly, either by the physical therapist or by the assistant. Their job is to take care of a myriad of small details and eliminate confusion so that the patient’s treatment sessions are efficient and effective. For example, a physical therapist aide will clean the treatment area after its use by each patient, and prepare tools, devices, and equipment for the next patient. Aides may assist in patient transport. However, in states where assistants must be licensed, aides are not permitted to undertake clinical tasks. Aides take care of clerical duties like answering the telephone, filling out insurance or other forms, and ordering supplies.
Both physical therapist assistants and aides need sufficient strength and stamina, because they must help patients walk or move, and may have to lift or carry bulky or heavy equipment or supplies. A great deal of their work involves squatting, bending, kneeling, standing, and walking for extended periods of time. Characteristics that employers look for, in addition to strength and stamina, include being organized, paying attention to details, good written and oral communication skills, and the ability to work under direction. Finally, physical therapists and aides should be empathetic and care about the quality of their patients’ lives.
Approximately one-third of all physical therapist assistants and aides work part time. The remainder work 40 or more hours a week. For many, the hours are consistent, normal weekday hours. However, those who work in an office or clinic with extended hours may be required to work evenings or weekends some or all of the time. Two thirds of all assistants and aides work in hospitals or doctor’s offices; the rest are employed by nursing homes, extended care facilities, outpatient clinics, or home health-care providers. Generally, they work in clean, well- lit and well-organized work environments.
While physical therapy aides are not required to have prior training or education in physical therapy, nearly all states require that physical therapy assistants have an associate’s degree. Vocational schools, community colleges, technical schools, and some hospitals offer a two-year program of study that culminates in an associate’s degree. These programs must be accredited. The American Physical Therapy Association’s Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education has accredited around 225 programs. Students receive formal instruction as well as hands-on clinical experience. Coursework focuses on anatomy and physiology, English, algebra, and psychology. Hands-on experience includes work leading to certifications in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) as well as field experience in treatment centers. State regulations control physical therapist assistants via required certification, certification, or licensing. They also require assistants to have taken and passed the National Physical Therapy Exam; a few states may also require passage of a state exam. Continuing education might be required in order to maintain licenses and keep them active.
Physical therapist aides can advance their careers by returning to school to become physical therapist assistants or licensed physical therapists. Physical therapist assistants can return to school to become licensed therapists. Others may develop their skills and understanding in specialized areas such as pediatric, geriatric, neuromuscular, musculoskeletal, integumentary, or cardiopulmonary physical therapy. Alternatively, assistants can step into an administrative or managerial position, become a department director, or teach.
The median annual income of physical therapist assistants is about $46,000. Assistants in the midrange earn between about $37,000 and $55,000 a year. Those in the lowest 10 percent are paid less than $30,000, while those in the top 10 percent are paid about $64,000 per year.
The median annual income of physical therapist aides is less than $25,000. Those in the midrange earn between roughly $20,000 and $29,000. Low earners receive around $18,000 per year, and top earners are paid more than $34,000.