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 Texas
10. University of Texas at El Paso (El Paso, TX)
PT students studying at UT El Paso develop professional core values, critical inquiry abilities, and a community-centered mindset. This approach prepares graduates to improve the health of communities and advance the physical therapy profession.
At UTEP, the highly experienced faculty members work to be role models. Professors demonstrate leadership at all levels in the physical therapy profession. Outside of the classroom, faculty members mentor students in research and evidence-based practice.
Dr. Gurovich, program director and associate professor, was recently named the interim editor-in-Chief of the Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapy Journal.
The PT program is housed in the state-of-the-art Campbell Building. Students have the opportunity to study in the Human Anatomy Teaching Laboratory and hospital simulation lab facilities. These innovative centers allow physical therapy students to train in “real life” scenarios and develop core competencies.
9. Hardin-Simmons University (Abilene, TX)
In 2019, 100% of Hardin-Simmons PT students were members of the American Physical Therapy Association. This milestone earned the university a Reach100 platinum award and free access to telehealth certificate core courses. Along with membership to APTA, 100% of students have passed the certification exam since 2011.
Physical therapy students begin hands-on learning in their first week at HSU. Outside of clinical experiences, the HSU PT ministries were established to provide pro bono health care to members of the community. Students are able to practice physical therapy with individuals who have trouble obtaining necessary PT care.
Since the first graduating class in 1997, HSU physical therapy students have found success in the field. All of the PT graduates who pass the national licensure exam are employed within 12 months of graduation. Alumni practice in all areas of the field, from clinical practice to research.
8. University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (San Antonio, TX)
At UT San Antonio, PT students complete 1,360 hours of supervised clinical practice. These full-time clinical affiliations cover acute care, outpatient orthopedics, and neurological rehabilitation. In order to pursue professional interests, physical therapy students participate in a specialty rotation covering sectors from pediatrics to sports medicine.
Physical therapy students are able to participate in research alongside faculty members in the health professions. The necessary areas of research include physical activity and function, community health, prevention and management of chronic conditions, and critical care. In addition to resources, the School of Health Professions offers programs to promote publications and disseminate research.
One research project at UT San Antonio seeks to study the impact of holistic programs on the wellbeing of cancer survivors. Through collaboration with the Institute for Health Promotion Research, physical therapy students comprehensively assess patients to determine the best solution.
7. University of North Texas Health Science Center (Fort Worth, TX)
PT students at the University of North Texas Health Science Center receive a well-rounded education in contemporary physical therapy. Along with a research-focused environment, the curriculum emphasizes healthcare for underserved populations. There are many opportunities for clinical internships at sites across the globe, including in Italy, Malawi, and rural areas.
UNT’s campus is home to two laboratories dedicated to the physical therapy department. The Human Movement Performance Lab, spanning 2,300 square feet, is equipped with motion analysis systems, force plates, and simulation facilities. The Functional Mobility Assessment Lab is designed to evaluate subjects with poor balance. UNT has invested nearly $500,000 in PT research.
In addition to exciting research and clinical opportunities, PT students are supported in the classroom. The low student-faculty ratio in each class ensures mentoring by physical therapy experts.
6. Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (Lubbock, TX)
Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center seeks excellence in education and service in the physical therapy profession. Based on student satisfaction surveys, the PT program was ranked #1 nationwide for three consecutive years. TTUHSC physical therapy students are prepared to improve patients’ health by applying clinical skills learned in the classroom.
The university is recognized for its comprehensive 3-year lock-step program. Through 100 credit hours, the curriculum prepares students with a strong base in foundational science and the most recent clinical practices. In addition, students receive exposure to a wide range of practice areas within the field.
After graduating, 100% of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center students find jobs within six months of passing their licensure exam. Students go on to work for hospital systems, outpatient practices, schools, acute care facilities, and sports rehabilitation practices. A physical therapy degree from TTUHSC opens up many opportunities for graduates to further their careers.
5. Texas State University (San Marcos, TX)
At Texas State University, physical therapy students have the opportunity to learn from faculty members who have made contributions to academics and the profession. Professors work to prioritize students by offering support and care. The Barbara Melzer Endowed Professorship was created to recognize faculty members who further the family culture of the program.
The Community-Access Physical Therapy Clinic at TSU is a student-run clinic offering pro bono services. Located in Round Rock, the staff practices evidence-based physical therapy. Along with PT, the clinic provides orthopedic and neurological rehabilitation services.
Physical therapy students will have access to many resources through the program’s industry partners. These benefactors offer time, money, equipment, and support to the TSU physical therapy program, including 3M, Central Texas Medical Center, DARCO Medical Technologies, and Wake Pharma US.
4. University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (Dallas, TX)
Located in Dallas, UT Southwestern Medical Center offers plenty of exciting opportunities for physical therapy students. The dynamic city is a center for business, health care innovation, and the arts. Students can take advantage of the outstanding facilities on campus from the Parkland Memorial Hospital to the Aston Ambulatory Care Center.
UT Southwestern PT students have the opportunity to volunteer at Camp John Marc during their second summer semester. During the summer, PT students practice essential rehabilitation skills and care for campers with neuromuscular diseases. This unique experience shows students the challenges that families and patients face in daily life.
Even after graduation, UT Southwestern students can continue to expand their expertise in health care. The school houses five residency programs that can develop clinical skills from neurological PT to prosthetics-orthotics programs.
3. University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (Galveston, TX)
UTMB Galveston offers plenty of programs for students to utilize their classroom knowledge in a hands-on setting. The Student Physical Therapy Association, an educational organization, volunteers in the community to represent the PT profession. Students provide necessary care while continuing their education outside of the classroom.
For students looking to apply their skills globally, mission trips are offered throughout the academic year. Students participate in service and volunteer-based learning in various locations, including Peru, Haiti, and Guatemala. The Clinic Saint-Esprit in Haiti serves over 200 patients each day, providing outpatient rehabilitation therapy for community members.
Third-year PT students at UTMB Galveston are required to complete capstone projects based on a real-life patient case from their clinical rotation. They present their work to peers and faculty during Research Day. Their work helps students develop the necessary skills used in their future careers.
2. Texas Woman’s University (Denton, TX)
At TWU, physical therapy students learn from leaders in PT education and research. As one of the top schools nationwide, faculty members have spent many hours practicing, researching, and educating. Professors are active in state and national Physical Therapy Associations to advocate for the profession. Furthermore, several have received awards for their commitment to the industry.
Clinical education at TWU allows students to practice what they learned in a clinical environment. The school has approximately 400 sites across the nation for the clinical education of PT students. With many choices of clinical sites, students can pursue their professional interests.
TWU alumni use their expertise to promote health and wellness for patients. The program’s reputation and stellar professors ensure they have the technical knowledge to practice PT. Using her TWU physical therapy education, Patsy Shropshire created a program to bring fitness to local communities.
1. Baylor University (Fort Sam Houston & Waco, TX)
Baylor prepares students with the necessary skills to meet the demands of practicing physical therapy. The accelerated PT program is unique in the field, allowing students to complete the curriculum in just two years. Using a blended learning approach, professors teach students through online interactions, hands-on laboratory sessions, and clinical education.
The highly-ranked PT program at Baylor also recruits students to become officers through the Army-Baylor University Doctoral Program. Along with basic officer initial entry training, students receive their degree in physical therapy. Graduates are prepared to serve as active-duty officers and as military physical therapists.
Both Baylor physical therapy programs offer plenty of opportunities for student research through collaboration in faculty-directed research projects. Using state-of-the-art facilities, the Baylor community focuses on optimizing the prevention and treatment of diseases like neuromusculoskeletal disorders.