October 12, 2022

4 Key Steps to Pursuing Your Dream Career as a Physical Therapist Assistant

By B&SC Blog Team

4 Key Steps to Pursuing Your Dream Career as a Physical Therapist Assistant

When you imagine recovering from a major injury, you probably assume that a physical therapist (PT) will be along for the ride. Physical therapy is certainly important, as it hastens recovery while also preventing further injuries. In all likelihood, however, previous encounters you’ve had with PT have actually been centered around your work with physical therapist assistants (PTAs).

Training as a PTA can be an excellent option for entering the field without navigating the complicated and time-consuming process of becoming a full-blown physical therapist. Some professionals even work as PTAs as they prepare to eventually become physical therapists.

The PTA approach isn’t right for everybody, but it’s one of the most accessible options for preparing to work in PT. As such, it’s a popular option among aspiring professionals who want to enter the healthcare sector quickly – but aren’t willing to compromise on high-level training.

Identified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) as a quickly-growing field in 2020-2030, the role of PTA provides ample opportunities to communicate closely with patients as you help them achieve swift and lasting recoveries. This rewarding role could bring a genuine sense of joy and purpose to your everyday work.

Intrigued by the possibility of becoming a physical therapist assistant? In this guide, we’ll explain why this role is so important and what it takes to get qualified.

What Do Physical Therapist Assistants Do?

Physical therapist assistants may perform a wide variety of tasks. These primarily depend on the specific patient populations they serve and the level of collaboration required with other professionals. Working under the supervision of licensed physical therapists, PTAs often find that their day-to-day work falls under one of two main categories:

  • Observational: Record keeping comprises a large share of the average PTA’s everyday tasks. These professional observe patients at every stage of the therapeutic process, sometimes with more personal contact than physical therapists. They take notes that are then passed on to inform proper care, adjustments to treatment, and ensure compliance.
  • Direct care: PTAs are increasingly called on to administer high-level treatments as they work directly patients. While they are not responsible for determining which treatment modalities are required, PTAs carry out plans of care by helping with mobility exercises, performing massages, or helping patients use targeted equipment.

Becoming a Physical Therapist Assistant

The path to becoming a PTA is far more straightforward than the requirements for getting qualified as a physical therapist. That said, not just anybody can enter this field. PTAs must obtain targeted training that encompasses both traditional coursework and extensive clinical experience.

Interested in becoming a PTA but not sure how to get started? Follow these key steps to launch a rewarding career:

1. Get Educated: Choose the Right PTA Program

The first step to becoming a physical therapist assistant? Enroll in a respected PTA program. Ideally, this program will be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), which is a trusted authority in the PT field.

An AAS program for aspiring PTAs will involve a blend of major-oriented courses and liberal arts education. This allows students to gain a variety of essential skills, including the soft skills that are incredibly important but overlooked with unfortunate frequency by many aspiring professionals. From written communication to empathy and everything in between, students emerge as well-rounded graduates.

Of course, clinical knowledge is also vital. As such, anatomy, kinesiology, and physiology play heavily into AAS programs for aspiring PTAs. Required courses also touch on pharmacology and effective interventions. In addition to discovering evidence-based PT principles, there should be ample opportunities for practicing technical skills.

2. Gain Practical Experience in a Clinical Setting

There’s a lot to be gained from classroom endeavors, but applying your newly gained skills is just as important. Hence, the necessity of the clinical internship, which places you in a hospital, clinic, or another facility.

During your internship, you’ll work under the direct supervision of an instructor or a PT professional. This supervisor will help you apply your emerging knowledge where it matters most. Your onsite efforts will be complemented by in-class discussions, encouraging you to reflect on your clinical experience while also learning from the experiences of fellow students.

The ultimate goal of the PTA clinical internship is to draw clear connections between what you’ve learned in lectures or textbooks with how patients behave in the real world. Meanwhile, you’ll have numerous opportunities to work on your bedside manner, which is critical for building strong relationships with patients.

The more empathy you’re able to show, the more trust patients will exhibit – and the more likely they’ll be to share their symptoms or progress honestly. Strong relationships with PTAs also tend to foster a better sense of commitment to recovery plans. You’ll discover this firsthand during your internship.

3. Pass the Licensing Exam

In some fields, you can immediately get a job after you’ve completed your associate program. As an aspiring PTA, however, you’ll first need to pass a rigorous licensing exam to demonstrate that you’ve mastered key concepts and can provide a high level of care.

Administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT), the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) for PTAs assesses the competence of prospective healthcare professionals after they’ve graduated from accredited programs. The computer-based test is administered four times per year at Prometric testing centers located throughout the US.

Typically taking four hours to complete, the test consists of four sections dedicated to multiple-choice questions. Scores are determined based on how many questions are answered correctly, so it’s always best to answer all questions – even when you’re unsure your answer is correct.

You’ll receive ample preparation for the NPTE while enrolled in your associate program, but additional studying will also be necessary. The Practice Exam and Assessment Tool (PEAT) is a great resource, as it helps you quickly identify both your strengths and weaknesses as a test-taker. This practice exam features the exact same format as the NPTE. After you’ve completed the practice test, you’ll receive a detailed performance report.

FSBPT also provides resources such as a demonstration exam and a checklist to ensure you’re fully prepared for all the challenges that the NPTE will send your way. Take full advantage of these opportunities so you can pass your exam on the first try.

4. Consider a Certification

Following graduation and licensure, many aspiring PTAs dive into specific areas of interest in hopes of eventually providing high-quality, specialized care. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) helps PTAs obtain additional certifications via the Advanced Proficiency Pathways program. Specialty areas include:

  • Acute care
  • Geriatrics
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Neurology

The program emphasizes mentorship, with supervising physical therapists providing an exceptional level of PT-PTA collaboration. Participants are responsible for selecting their mentors.
Upon enrolling in this program, participants have up to five years to satisfy all requirements, including sixty contact hours, 2,000 clinical work hours, and mentored clinical experience completion. Recognition through the Advanced Proficiency Pathways program lasts for ten years.

Where Physical Therapist Assistants Work

PTAs work in clinics, assisted living facilities, or hospitals. PTAs may also be required at K-12 schools, universities, or athletic facilities.

Home health positions are becoming more common, with PTAs often traveling to provide direct care. This is a convenient solution for patients with limited mobility. Occasionally, PTAs can find remote work, although these positions tend to focus primarily on clerical duties as opposed to patient care.

Why Become a PTA

By now, you should understand what it takes to become a PTA and what you can expect from this rewarding career path. As with any worthwhile academic endeavor, it takes effort to get qualified as a PTA – so it’s important to determine your “why” early on.

Potential benefits of working as a PTA abound, but the following are among the most compelling:

  • Have a positive impact on patients: While all physical therapy professionals make a discernible difference in the lives of their patients, PTAs have the unique opportunity to see this play out on a firsthand basis. They work closely with patients and take meticulous notes on their progress – so they’re the first to notice when these efforts lead to improvements. Education is a core component of the PTA-patient relationship, so this job provides the perfect opportunity to teach patients about healthy living.
  • Quick path to employment: The road to employment as a PTA can be surprisingly swift. The PTA associate program at Bryant & Stratton, for example, involves 71 credit hours. Yes, internships require a great deal of commitment, but you should be prepared to practice in a few short years.
  • Ability to specialize: As mentioned previously, it’s possible to obtain recognition in a variety of specialty areas. These allow you to work primarily in niches you feel passionate about. With certification comes enhanced clinical capabilities – and a definite leg up on other applicants as you seek your dream job.
  • Take advantage of versatile work arrangements: In addition to enjoying numerous opportunities for specialization, PTAs have the ability to pick and choose among many types of work facilities and schedules. The clinic may be an expected setting, but some PTAs even travel to visit patients in their own homes. From flexible hours, nights/weekends, and sports schedules to the reliability of a 9-to-5, there really is something for everyone in this surprisingly vast corner of the healthcare field.

Start Your PTA Journey Today

Ready to begin an exciting career that allows you to make an impact on all kinds of patients? You’ll gain the training and inspiration you need at Bryant & Stratton College. The Physical Therapist Assistant Associate of Applied Science program will help you gain an edge in a promising field that has a lot to offer for patients and professionals alike. Find your program and learn more!

*Cited projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth.

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