A physical therapy assistant, or PTA, is a licensed healthcare professional with special training in the field of physical therapy. A two-year Associates Degree is necessary to become a physical therapy assistant. Education must be obtained by an accredited school. An accredited school has a program which has undergone extensive review by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, also known as CAPTE accreditation. This accreditation ensures the quality of educational courses and that of the instructors.
A physical therapy assistant essentially assists the physical therapist in carrying out therapy treatments. The PTA can perform the same duties as a physical therapist with the exception of initial evaluations, reevaluations and treatment modifications, and discharge evaluations and plans. Some states require direct supervision. In other words, a PT must be on-site for a PTA to work. Other states require only that the PT must be available through telecommunication.
To become a physical therapy assistant, extensive knowledge is required of specialized physical therapy equipment, exercise treatment protocols, general mobility skills, activities of daily living and specialized modalities such as heat/ice applications, ultrasound and electric stimulation for pain relief. They can use these skills to provide hands-on treatment to clients. The PTA, however, must work under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist.
Currently there are approximately 230 programs available in the United States to become a physical therapy assistant. In order to be considered for a physical therapy assistant program you must have a high grade point average (GPA), especially in the major sciences such as biology, chemistry and statistics. Each PTA candidate must also volunteer in the healthcare field, preferably as a physical therapist aide, and show community involvement through other volunteer activities. Letters of recommendation from current physical therapists is also a prerequisite for acceptance to a PTA program.
In order to become a physical therapy assistant and work in the field, state licensure must be obtained and maintained. Fees for state licensure testing and acquisition vary from state to state. Once licensure is obtained, the PTA must follow the continuing education requirements of the state in which they are employed or risk forfeiture of the right to practice physical therapy. Licenses are typically renewed every two years.
The PTA is also under the same responsibility to work under the safety and legal requirements of the physical therapy practice and uphold a current license in good standing at all times. It is important to understand that while a PTA can perform most of the same duties as a PT, the PT is ultimately responsible for the care of each patient, so effective communications skills, both written and verbal, are a necessity.