Physical therapists assist persons with injuries or illnesses in regaining mobility and managing pain. They diagnose patients’ dysfunctional motions by watching them stand or walk, use exercise and equipment to relieve discomfort, assess patients’ progress, and create treatment plans for them. Physical therapists typically work in private practices, clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes.
A planned patient-care program is carried out by the assistant, following established procedures. Duties of the physical therapist assistant include training patients in exercises and activities of normal daily living. Duties also include conducting treatments and utilizing special equipment and assisting with tests, evaluations and complex treatment procedures. Assistants also observe and report patient responses.
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What does a physical therapy assistant do?
A physical therapy (or therapist) assistant, also known as a PTA, is a healthcare professional who works under the supervision of a physical therapist to provide patient treatment. You often find them working in a wide range of settings, such as outpatient facilities, private homes, sports clinics, assisted living facilities and hospitals. Some common responsibilities of a physical therapy assistant include:
- Educating patients about their injuries and how to care for them
- Demonstrating exercises for patients
- Documenting patient treatment sessions thoroughly and accurately
- Submitting treatment plans and notes to insurance companies
- Developing treatment goals and objectives
- Evaluating patients and their progress
- Maintaining communication with the physical therapist regarding patient treatment
- Verifying and correcting the proper performance of home exercises and treatments
- Utilizing devices to effectively treat patients with different modalities, such as traction, muscle stimulation, ice, heat or ultrasound.
How to become a physical therapist assistant
Step 1: Earn a Physical Therapist Assistant Associate’s degree
All states require PTAs to have an Associate’s degree from an accredited program, according to the BLS. Earning a degree may sound daunting, but some PTA training can be completed in as few as 18 months. This formal education consists of courses, lab work and clinical training.
Step 2: Pass the licensing exam
All states except Colorado and Hawaii require PTAs to be licensed in addition to holding an Associate’s degree. Once applicants have graduated from a PTA program, they’re eligible to take the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) for physical therapist assistants. Once you pass this exam, you’ll be a licensed PTA.
It’s important to thoroughly prepare for the NPTE before taking it. Though retakes are available, you may only take the exam three times in one year or six times total. More details on the NPTE can be found at The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy website. Depending on the state, physical therapist assistants may also need to take continuing education courses to maintain their license.
Step 3: Brush up on these in-demand PTA skills
After earning your Associate’s degree and passing the NPTE, you’re nearly ready to begin your career as a PTA. But before rushing into the career search process, it’s helpful to know what exactly employers are looking for so you can come prepared to put your best foot forward.
We used real-time job analysis software to examine more than 30,000 physical therapist jobs posted over the past year. The data helped us identify the top skills employers are seeking:
- Treatment planning
- Patient care
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
- Home health
- Patient and family education
While a great physical therapy assistant program is designed to equip you with the necessary technical skills, a little extra proficiency in these skill areas will help your resume stand out to employers. You might also consider getting involved in extracurricular activities to polish your skills. Coaching youth sports is an excellent option for anyone looking to develop their training and motivational skills, volunteering at nursing homes would be an excellent way to show your interest in working with aging populations, and organizations like Toastmasters can help refine your ability to speak clearly and confidently.
Step 4: Sharpen your resume and interview skills and start applying
No matter the job you’re applying for, taking the time to update and polish your resume will help improve your odds of getting a call back. You’ll also want to work on your interviewing skills while on your search.
As you go into your job search, understand what your preferred practice areas are—do you want to work with athletes? The elderly? People with disabilities? While it might not be practical in all locations, narrowing your search and tailoring your resume and interview answers to your preferred physical therapy specialty area can help you prioritize and focus yourself while searching.
Skills of a physical therapy assistant
More and more, physical therapists are using computers and technology to document treatment plans and patient records. A physical therapy assistant will need to be familiar with word processing software, be able to access and alter patient records, and create online exercise programs for their patients.
Empathy and compassion are the primary skills to be successful in any profession in the healthcare industry. Patients attending physical therapy will likely be suffering from an uncomfortable injury or condition and may require motivation to complete their programs and exercises. A physical therapy assistant will need to approach them with care and understanding.
Attention to detail
Aside from vigilantly assessing the needs and progression of the patient, physical therapy assistants need to be detail-oriented to properly and thoroughly document treatment sessions that will be sent to the insurance companies of the patients.
Physical strength and endurance
Physical therapy is a highly active career that requires both physical strength and endurance from its practitioners. Physical therapy assistants remain on their feet for the majority of the day, demonstrate exercises to their patients by repeatedly squatting or kneeling, and are often required to assist patients out of their beds or wheelchairs.
To treat their patients, physical therapy assistants must be able to effectively communicate the diagnosis and treatment plan to their clients. Additionally, they are often required to communicate with insurance companies to explain and justify a patient’s treatment plan.
Best Physical Therapy Schools In California
10. California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento, CA)
Sacramento State engages students in clinical reasoning using simulated and real-world patient cases. Through 36 weeks of full-time internships, students learn how to apply their physical therapy knowledge in clinical practice. PT students complete these placements at three different locations to allow them to pursue their interests within the field.
The Simulation Learning Center has multiple labs for students to practice their clinical skills with patient simulators. Mimicking the appearance of a hospital patient room, students are able to practice hands-on skills without compromising patient safety. These facilities include adult, pediatric, and birthing mother patients.
Outside of lab courses and internships, Sacramento State offers five Community Clinics. PT students, under the supervision of licensed practitioners, run these clinics and provide free physical therapy. Adult neurology, orthopedic, amputee, pediatric, and geriatric are the main PT focuses.
9. California State University, Fresno (Fresno, CA)
At Fresno State, the mission is to educate a diverse body of physical therapists who are committed to lifelong learning. PT students are prepared to examine, evaluate, and develop care plans for patients of all ages. Fresno State students are recognized for their commitment to service and competency in the field.
Multicultural education is a graduation requirement for all students, including those in the PT program. Students can choose from a variety of courses to understand global perspectives and learn about other communities. Through study abroad programs, PT students can learn about different health care systems around the world, from the Czech Republic to Prague.
Physical therapy students can apply their knowledge while participating in community service through the Jan and Bud Richter Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning. Volunteering, service-learning, and educational events are some ways that the university partners with its surrounding community.
8. University of the Pacific (Stockton, CA)
Since 1985, the University of the Pacific has been preparing physical therapists to practice medicine. The 24 dedicated faculty members have 230 combined years of teaching experience. No matter what a student is interested in studying, they can find a professor at the University of the Pacific that is practicing in the field.
Physical therapy education is student-centered, from courses to extracurricular activities. Through student-run leadership and organizations, PT students take an active role in their educational careers. In addition, the program at the University of the Pacific enrolls only 36 students in each class with a 1:8 student ratio.
Many PT students participate in research to learn more about new developments in the field. They work alongside faculty members to translate research into practical application. Under the mentorship of faculty, physical therapy students produce an average of 8 scholarly works each year.
7. Mount Saint Mary’s University (Los Angeles, CA)
The PT program at Mount Saint Mary’s prepares students well for their future careers. In the past two years, 100% of graduates passed their licensure examination. Furthermore, all of the recent physical therapy graduates were able to find employment within one year of graduation. Graduates go on to practice in orthopedics, sports medicine, neurorehabilitation, geriatrics, and many more fields.
Physical therapy students participate in the wellness practicum in their first year at Mount Saint Mary’s. Through this program, PT students provide wellness assessments and training to other healthcare students, staff, and other members of the community. This offers practical critical thinking skills necessary in assessing needs on an individual basis.
In addition, PT students are instrumental in the health and safety of student-athletes at the university. Teams of students will create team-wide training exercises and readiness screenings to prevent injury. By integrating experiential learning with other departments, PT students are uniquely prepared for interdisciplinary work.
6. Chapman University (Orange, CA)
Accredited since 1928, Chapman University is home to the longest running physical therapy program in the United States. Due to its experienced history, the university offers many resources to PT students such as state-of-the-art lab facilities. Chapman’s campus houses many centers including the Motion Analysis, Musculoskeletal, and Neuromuscular laboratories.
The Gait Rehabilitation and Research Lab investigates new solutions for fall prevention. Through the design of new technology, the team’s research benefits individuals with neurological and musculoskeletal disorders. Students learn about perturbation training, activities of daily living, and stride interval complexity under the mentorship of faculty members.
Along with research laboratories, students can participate in clinical experiences across the globe to develop their clinical skills. The physical therapy department offers experiences in Costa Rica and Italy for students to practice their abilities in global communities.
5. Loma Linda University (Loma Linda, CA)
Loma Linda University prepares physical therapists to pursue careers as researchers, educators, and caregivers. Along with a DPT degree, the university has other offerings, including post-professional PT and PT assistant programs. The unique physical therapy PhD curriculum is research-oriented and emphasizes topics from pain science to lifestyle health.
Loma Linda University offers a residency program with advanced knowledge and skills in the area for students interested in orthopedics. PT students work with clinical supervisors to train in examination, clinical decision-making, and treatment procedures. Members of the orthopedic residency program provide patient care through the Medical Center’s Outpatient Rehabilitation Center.
Loma Linda University offers unique mission trips to help local and global communities. Since 2015, PT students have participated in Street Medicine to provide their services to low-income residents in San Bernardino. Others travel to Haiti, Ethiopia, China, or Mexico to impact physical therapy care worldwide.
4. San Diego State University (San Diego, CA)
PT students choose SDSU for the cutting-edge curriculum and research facilities. These labs focus on topics from neuroplasticity to rehabilitation biomechanics. The Applied Sensorimotor Research Laboratory at SDSU identifies mechanisms behind stress and pain responses. PT students work alongside researchers to prevent and treat chronic pain disorders.
At SDSU, students generate their own research with the assistance of faculty members. Physical therapy students in the Class of 2021 successfully published their doctoral project work in the journal Military Medicine. Their work centered on post-traumatic neck pain that is found with veterans.
Outside of classes and the lab, there are plenty of options for participation in student organizations. The California Outreach Challenge is a state-wide competition that challenges PT students to volunteer in their local communities. SDSU students were the top 5 finishers in the individual competition, placing 2nd among PT programs.
3. Samuel Merritt University (Oakland, CA)
Samuel Merritt University is home to one of the West’s most advanced healthcare simulation facilities. The Health Sciences Simulation Center is home to computerized mannequins and standardized patients. Through the use of technology, PT students respond to life-like scenarios as part of a healthcare team. This model environment prioritizes patient safety and connects theory and practice.
The Community Participant Labs are another way for PT students to practice their techniques. As a required experience, students provide physical therapy services to community members under the supervision of licensed faculty. These labs include adult, pediatric, and occupational physical therapy.
Physical therapy students can also bring together theory and practice through the series of capstone courses. Working in small groups, they complete a case report, systematic review, or community-based research project. SMU physical therapy students go on to present their work to their peers or even at national conferences.
2. UCSF – San Francisco State University (San Francisco, CA)
The joint PT program between UCSF and SFSU admits 50 students each year, preparing them for success in their future careers. After graduating, 100% of PT students go on to pass the national licensing exam. Physical therapy alumni have the opportunity to continue their education through a variety of symposiums, lectures, and other resources offered to the PT network.
This top-tier education is present throughout the curriculum, including the residency programs. The Acute Care Physical Therapy Residency Program provides curriculum, mentoring, and teaching experience to prepare students for practice. PT residents learn to deliver patient-centered services with access to resources and clinical expertise from the UCSF health system.
PT students can also provide care through the UCSF PhysFit Wellness Center to translate exercise sciences to physical therapy practice. Physical therapists offer individual and group programs to improve strength, endurance, balance, and function.
1. University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA)
As a top-ranked school of physical therapy, USC is dedicated to shaping the future of the field. The university offers a traditional DPT program and an innovative, hybrid format. Physical therapy students attend classes using the online campus and visit the campus for in-person immersion experiences. Learning from the same renowned faculty as the traditional program, PT students in the hybrid program will be fully immersed in the USC experience.
Julie Tilson, professor of clinical physical therapy, was recently recognized with an Award for Leadership in Education. This is one of the highest awards given by the Academy of Physical Therapy Education and highlights the leadership of USC faculty members.
They prioritize interdisciplinary collaboration and translational research efforts to provide the best level of patient care. Using 14 laboratories and two research centers, PT students perform research under the guidance of faculty members to study rehabilitation.