Physical Therapy Assistant: Certifications, Associate & Online Degree Info

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What will you learn in a physical therapy assistant program? Read about program requirements, the pros and cons of a certificate and an associate degree and potential careers.
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Studying To Be a Physical Therapy Assistant: Degrees at a Glance

A physical therapy assistant program prepares you to assist a physical therapist in the diagnosis and treatment of patients recovering from illness or injury. Different levels of education lead to different responsibilities, from preparing therapies to working directly with patients. Programs typically fall into two categories: physical therapy assistant and physical therapy aide.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), job prospects in this field were expected to increase 45% between 2010 and 2020. This is because physical therapy demand is projected to increase as the baby boomer generation ages.

Certificate Associate
Who is this degree for? Those who wish to work in the physical therapy field without a lot of hands-on time with patients Students who wish to directly help physical therapy patients without the responsibility of being a physical therapist
Common Career Paths (with approximate mean annual salary) - Physical therapy aide ($25,000)* - Physical therapy assistant ($51,000)*
Time to Completion Approximately 12 weeks 4-5 semesters
Common Graduation Requirements - Coursework, including lectures and labs
- Internship (varies)
Same as certificate, plus:
- General education coursework
Prerequisites - High school diploma Same as certificate, plus:
- Prerequisite courses (usually biology)
- CPR and First Aid certification (varies)
- Hepatitis B vaccine
- Experience in physical therapy
Online Availability Yes, hybrids Yes, hybrids

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 salary statistics).

Certificates for Physical Therapy Assistants

Certificate programs typically prepare you to become a physical therapy aide. Physical therapy aides assist physical therapists and physical therapy assistants with the care of patients by preparing equipment and treatment areas, helping to move patients and participating in clerical work such as working with paperwork or ordering supplies. They may work in a variety of settings, including physical therapy clinics, hospitals or occupational therapy centers.

Physical therapy aide programs are typically designed to take about three months. Credits may be applied towards an associate degree program in the future.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Stable, high-growth field (43% between 2010 and 2020)*
  • Does not require a large investment of time/money for training
  • Demand in the physical therapy field expected to increase*

Cons

  • Potential career pays less than average*
  • May have to work nights or weekends*
  • May have to compete for jobs against more experienced candidates*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Courses and Training Requirements

Certificates typically take about 12 weeks to complete. The program may be broken up into different classes or modules, which usually are offered concurrently. Labs or clinical portions are often included, and may take the form of an internship. Courses focus on the basics of anatomy and physical therapy.

Some courses you may take include:

  • Medical terminology
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Intro to physical therapy
  • Athletic injuries

Courses may be offered in the evenings for convenience.

Online Course Information

Some hybrid program options are available for certificates. Often, lecture-based courses are offered online, while lab courses must be attended in person. The lab courses often require hands-on teaching of physical therapy techniques. Schools that do not offer hybrid programs may still offer some courses, such as anatomy and physiology, online.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

Because physical therapy aides are often tasked with dealing directly with patients, employers often prefer candidates who are good with people. According to the Mt. San Antonio College's website, being bilingual or otherwise culturally sensitive may improve your chances of being hired.

Job opportunities may be better in rural areas, since there is less competition. Facilities that deal with elderly patients may also have more need. Focusing here may make it easier to gain employment.

Other Degrees to Consider

If you like the idea of helping medical professionals, but are a bit concerned about the relatively low average salary of physical therapy aides, you might consider going to school to become a medical or dental assistant instead. Medical assistants take care of clinical and administrative tasks at the offices of many medical specialists, such as physicians or chiropractors. According to BLS, job prospects were expected to increase 31% between 2010 and 2020. Medical assistants make an average of $30,000 a year. Dental assistants help dentists, doing routine work with patients and helping with record keeping. Prospects were also expected to grow 31%, and they earn, on average, $35,000 a year.

Associate Degrees for Physical Therapy Assistants

Most states require physical therapy assistants to have an associate degree, typically a degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Physical therapy assistants help physical therapists with the diagnosis and treatment of patients, often taking care of lesser responsibilities. They may lead exercises, teach patients how to use equipment or do stretches, observe changes or talk with family members.

Physical therapy assistant associate degree programs typically take about two years to complete. Programs may have additional application requirements on top of the college's entry requirements, or may even have a separate application process.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • High-growth field (46% job growth expected between 2010 and 2020)*
  • Potential career pays more than average for level of education*
  • Large variety of work locations and specialties available**

Cons

  • May need to stand for long periods of time*
  • May need to meet licensing requirements, depending on state*
  • May need to work long hours*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Ivy Tech Community College.

Courses and Training Requirements

Associate degree programs often take four or five semesters to complete. They require a mix of coursework and clinical or lab work, and may include an internship. General education requirements may be included in the program. Some programs may take transfer credits. Also, some programs may require prerequisite courses, such as anatomy and physiology, English composition and psychology, to be completed before applying.

Courses you may take include:

  • Functional anatomy
  • Neurology
  • Therapeutic exercise
  • Physical therapy principles
  • Human pathology

Some states require licensure in order to be a physical therapist assistant. Requirements vary from state to state, but usually you will be required to pass the physical therapist assistant version of the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE).

Online Course Information

Physical therapy assistant associate degree programs may have hybrid options available, depending on the school. Generally, lecture-based courses are offered online, but lab courses must be taken in person. Hybrid programs may be designed to work better for students who work or have families and cannot make a typical class schedule. In general, the curriculum for hybrid programs is similar to on-campus programs. Campuses may offer both, or only on-campus or hybrid programs.

Getting Ahead With This Degree

Because physical therapy assistants spend a lot of time with patients on their feet, they should be compassionate with people and have physical stamina. The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) has a continuing competence initiative which is designed to keep physical therapists and physical therapy assistants up to date on their education and knowledge. The FSBPT recommends routinely taking continuing education courses and checking to make sure your competence level is acceptable.

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