Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides - What They Do

Physical therapist assistants and aides help physical therapists to provide treatment that improves patient mobility, relieves pain, and prevents or lessens physical disabilities of patients. A physical therapist might ask a physical therapist assistant to help patients exercise or learn to use crutches, for example, or an aide to gather and prepare therapy equipment. Patients include accident victims and individuals with disabling conditions such as lower-back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries, and cerebral palsy.

Physical therapist assistants assist physical therapists in providing care to patients. Under the direction and supervision of physical therapists, they provide exercise, instruction; therapeutic methods like electrical stimulation, mechanical traction, and ultrasound; massage; and gait and balance training. Physical therapist assistants record the patient's responses to treatment and report the outcome of each treatment to the physical therapist.

Physical therapist aides help make therapy sessions productive, under the direct supervision of a physical therapist or physical therapist assistant. They usually are responsible for keeping the treatment area clean and organized and for preparing for each patient's therapy. When patients need assistance moving to or from a treatment area, aides assist in their transport. Because they are not licensed, aides do not perform the clinical tasks of a physical therapist assistant in States where licensure is required.

The duties of aides include some clerical tasks, such as ordering depleted supplies, answering the phone, and filling out insurance forms and other paperwork. The extent to which an aide or an assistant performs clerical tasks depends on the needs and organization of the facility.

Work Environment

Physical therapist assistants and aides need a moderate degree of strength because of the physical exertion required in assisting patients with their treatment. In some cases, assistants and aides need to lift patients. Frequent kneeling, stooping, bending, and standing for long periods also are part of the job.

The hours and days that physical therapist assistants and aides work vary with the facility. About 28 percent of all physical therapist assistants and aides work part-time. Many outpatient physical therapy offices and clinics have evening and weekend hours, to coincide with patients' personal schedules.

Education & Training Required

Employers typically require physical therapy aides to have a high school diploma. They are trained on the job, and most employers provide clinical on-the-job training.

In most States, physical therapist assistants are required by law to hold an associate degree. The American Physical Therapy Association’s Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education accredits postsecondary physical therapy assistant programs. In 2009, there were 223 accredited programs, which usually last 2 years and culminate in an associate degree.

Programs are divided into academic coursework and hands-on clinical experience. Academic coursework includes algebra, English, anatomy and physiology, and psychology. Clinical work includes certifications in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and other first aid, and field experience in treatment centers. Both educators and prospective employers view clinical experience as essential to ensuring that students understand the responsibilities of a physical therapist assistant.

Certifications Needed (Licensure)

Licensing is not required to practice as a physical therapy aide. However, most States regulate physical therapist assistants through licensure, registration, or certification. Most States require physical therapist assistants to graduate from an accredited education program and pass the National Physical Therapy Exam. Some States may require physical therapy assistants to pass State exams. Many States also require continuing education credits for physical therapist assistants to maintain licensure. Complete information on regulations can be obtained from State licensing boards.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)

Physical therapist assistants and aides should be well-organized, detail oriented, and caring. They should be able to take direction and work well in a team situation. They usually have strong interpersonal skills and a desire to help people in need.

Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides - What They Do - Page 2

Academic Programs of Interest

Kinesiology is the scientific study of the anatomy, physiology, and mechanics of body movement, especially in humans. Kinesiology encompasses human anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, exercise physiology, exercise psychology and sociology, history, and philosophy of sport.

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