Physical Therapy Assistant Careers: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a physical therapy assistant career? Get real job descriptions, salary statistics and job outlook information to see if a career as a physical therapy assistant is right for you.
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The Pros and Cons of a Physical Therapy Assistant Career

As a physical therapy assistant, you'll work under the supervision of a physical therapist and help patients as they recover from injury, illness and surgery. To learn more about the pros and cons of working as a physical therapy assistant, read on.

Pros of a Physical Therapy Assistant Career
Bright employment outlook (41% job growth from 2012-2022)*
Good salary payoff for educational requirements ($54,330 average annual salary; associate's degree typically required)*
Generally good job security**
Job location flexibility*

Cons of a Physical Therapy Assistant Career
Evening and weekend hours may be necessary*
Uncooperative patients may lead to stress**
Possible exposure to disease or infections**

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O*Net Online

Essential Career Information

Common Duties

Working under the direction of a physical therapist, a physical therapy assistant helps recovering patients in a variety of ways. Typical duties might include helping patients through specific exercises, educating patients and family members about what to do after treatment, using devices such as walkers to help patients and reporting patient progress to a physical therapist. Motivating patients during particularly difficult exercises is also an important responsibility of a physical therapy assistant.

You'll use a wide range of therapeutic methods while working as a physical therapy assistant. Massage, aquatic therapy and electrical treatments are all utilized in the profession, and you'll need to be proficient with equipment related to these treatment methods. Along with transporting patients to and from treatment areas, physical therapy assistants sometimes fit patients for orthopedic braces or other supportive devices.

Salary Information and Career Outlook

As of May 2014, the BLS reported a median annual salary of about $54,000 for physical therapy assistants. The job outlook for physical therapy assistants is very strong, with the BLS projecting 41% employment growth from 2012-2022. The health needs of the aging baby-boom generation should continue to spur demand for physical therapy services. Job prospects are expected to be especially good in acute hospital, skilled nursing and orthopedic settings.

Requirements

In most states, you'll need an associate's degree in physical therapy to qualify for physical therapy assistant positions. Physical therapy programs are generally divided into classroom training and clinical experiences, with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training often included. Licensure is required for physical therapy assistants in most states, and you'll need to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam after graduating from an accredited physical therapy program. Additional state-administered exams may also be required.

To be a successful physical therapy assistant, you'll likely need a healthy amount of compassion, as your patients will be recovering from significant injuries or illnesses and will need as much emotional support as possible. Physical strength and dexterity will also be important when providing manual therapy and therapeutic exercises. Being able to keep highly-detailed notes of patient progress is another important duty of physical therapy assistants, so a detail-oriented nature is also a necessary attribute.

What Are Employers Looking For?

If you have an education in physical therapy and are eligible for licensing exams, you might find work in a wide range of healthcare settings. A few job listings open as of November 2012 might give you an idea of the current job market for physical therapy assistants.

  • A skilled nursing facility in Durham, NC, is looking for a licensed physical therapy assistant to join their team. An associate's degree is required for this entry-level position.
  • A New Jersey hospital seeks a physical therapy assistant with one to two years of experience. Candidates will need an associate's degree and New Jersey Physical Therapist Assistant licensure to qualify for this position.
  • A home health agency in Texas is looking for a physical therapy assistant with one to two years of experience to perform therapeutic work in clients' homes. The position requires licensure and current CPR certification.

Standing Out in the Field

Continuing education can be a good way to set yourself apart from other prospective physical therapy assistants. Keeping up to date with the latest therapeutic methods and devices can help enhance your professional qualifications. Specializing in a certain area such as aquatic therapy or massage might also help you find work more easily. Due to the physical toll of preparing equipment and transporting patients, keeping yourself in good shape could be another way to be more attractive to potential employers.

Alternate Career Options

A career as a medical assistant might be a good alternative option if you enjoy administrative work as well as clinical tasks. Medical assistants generally take patient histories and vital signs, administer patient injections, prepare blood for laboratory tests and schedule appointments. You'll need at least a high school diploma along with on-the-job training to work as a medical assistant. The BLS projects 31% employment growth for medical assistants from 2010-2020. As of May 2011, the BLS further reported an average annual salary of about $30,000 for medical assistants.

If you'd like to work in the physical therapy field with fewer educational and licensure requirements, a career as a physical therapist aide might be a good option for you. Physical therapist aides usually need a high school diploma and receive much of their training while on the job. Working as a physical therapist aide typically involves cleaning treatment areas, setting up equipment and carrying out various clerical tasks. The BLS projects strong job growth for physical therapist aides over the coming years, with overall employment expected to increase by 43% from 2010-2020. The BLS further reported an average annual salary of about $25,000 for physical therapist aides in May 2011.

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