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Physical Therapist Assistant Frequently Asked Questions And Answers

Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) are becoming an increasingly important part of the modern healthcare system, making this profession very attractive for individuals who wish to become professional healthcare workers.

Because physical therapy has become such a vital part of America’s medical sector, every state in America has demonstrated a strong and growing demand for qualified PTAs.


What Role do PTAs Play in America

Physical therapy has become a vital part of medical care in America. Whether they are a part of rehabilitation therapy after a serious accident, supportive care for the elderly or as a part of a regimen of care to assist athletes who have suffered sports related injuries, physical therapy professionals have become central to providing effective care for many patients.

For this reason, physical therapists work with doctors, nurses and other medical professionals in order to devise a plan of treatment that can most effectively care for their patients.

A PTA works to assist the physical therapist in performing his or duties, in much the same way a nurse works with a physician. In addition, PTAs often provide other services, such as working as part of the patient lift team.

Among the most common areas where a PTA can be employed are the following:

  • As a part of a hospital rehabilitation team. In some cases, PTAs working at a hospital have other duties that are not related to their duties as a PTA, such as being a part of a patient lift-team.
  • PTAs commonly work in outpatient care clinics where they perform physical therapy on the patients. These facilities range from sports medicine facilities to long-term rehabilitation centers.
  • PTAs are very commonly employed by rehabilitation and convalescent care centers. In many cases, individuals who have been bed ridden due to illness or injury require physical therapy in order to regain their physical capabilities.
  • Elder care centers make extensive use of physical therapy in order to help maintain their patients’ physical capabilities. In addition, exercise and physical therapy has been shown to assist the elderly in staving off the degenerative effects of senile dementia and other age-related conditions.
  • Home care PTAs work in the patient’s home. In many cases, this is due to the patient being unable to easily travel to a clinic for medical reasons. In other cases, the PTA might circulate among residences that are located inconveniently far from any clinic or hospital that offers physical therapy.
  • Sports medicine and exercise training is becoming an increasingly popular source of employment for PTAs. In addition to providing care for individuals who have been injured, they can also participate in programs designed to prevent injury by teaching proper exercise and sports practices.

What are a PTA’s Duties?

Enter your text here...PTA’s work under the supervision of physicians, physical therapists and other medical professionals in order to provide high quality patient care.

Although PTAs must be licensed in order to carry out their duties, they are not allowed to work independently.

For this reason, a PTA must always closely coordinate his or her activities with the supervising medical professionals.

In general, PTA’s have the following duties:

  • Carry out physical therapy under the direction of a physical therapist or other supervising medical professional.
  • Observe and report on the patient’s progress over the course of any therapy regimen.
  • Instruct the patient in how to safely use mobility enhancements such as canes or wheelchairs. In addition, assist the patient in understanding how to safely undertake common duties such as bathing and using the bathroom.
  • Work with the patient’s caregivers and family, instructing them in how to assist the patient during his or her therapy.
  • Some PTAs are allowed to supervise physical therapist aides and other PTAs as a part of their duties.
  • In home care PTAs often visit their patients on a regular basis to determine if the patient’s in home exercises that have been planned out by the supervising physical therapist are having the desired effect. This can be especially important due to the fact that once at home, the patient is no longer under the regular supervision of his caregivers.
  • Some PTAs may be tasked with giving educational sessions for patients and the general public alike. This can be especially common among PTAs who are employed by public health agencies.
  • Other duties as determined by the PTA’s supervisors.

Depending on their position, the PTA’s duties may vary.

For example, a PTA working with cognitively impaired elderly will have a different set of responsibilities than a PTA working in sports medicine, even if the type of physical therapy they are providing is the same.

For this reason, anyone seeking to become a PTA should carefully consider what type of field will bring them the most personal and professional satisfaction. For example, an individual who enjoys working with children will be unlikely to be satisfied by a career working with the elderly.

Finally, a PTA’s permissible duties can vary from state to state. For this reason, anyone seeking to become a PTA should be certain to be fully aware of the laws regarding a PTA’s rights and responsibilities in his or her home state.

This is especially important for those PTAs who are moving to another state, as failing to understand the differences in allowable PTA practices could lead to severe professional and legal consequences, including the potential loss of the individual’s license to work as a PTA.

Why Would I Want to Become a PTA?

Becoming a PTA allows the individual to enter a well-compensated and personally rewarding career. In addition to being able to work in a field responsible for the well-being of so many patients, PTAs have a wide range of career choices available to them.

Furthermore, PTAs are currently enjoying robust professional growth. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are currently over 71,000 employed PTAs in the United States.

That number is expected to increase by at least 41 percent between 2012 and 2022, resulting in over 29,000 new positions being available by 2022.

In addition to new positions, job attrition due to retirements and other factors will ensure that there continues to be a high demand for qualified PTAs of all types.

In addition to this, the salary levels most PTAs enjoy are highly competitive with other careers with similar educational and professional requirements. According to the BLS, the annual median wage for PTAs is over $52,000 as of 2012.

The rate of pay for PTAs is expected to keep pace with or exceed the inflation rate. Furthermore, many PTAs enjoy generous benefits packages, including paid vacation and personal and family health insurance.

Perhaps most importantly, those PTAs who are experienced or working in high demand fields can enjoy very high salaries. The BLS currently estimates that the top 10 percent of PTAs earn at least $72,000, in addition to other benefits.

For this reason, becoming a PTA can be a wise long-term decision, as the rate of pay increase can quickly allow a PTA to enter the upper-middle class.

Who Regulates the PTA Field?

Currently, PTAs are largely regulated by their state of residence. The state controls the licensure of all PTAs, as well as those regulations involving the transfer of PTAs who are currently licensed in another state.

Other regulations regarding the practice of physical therapy can be passed by the state’s legislature or any regulatory bodies the legislature has empowered to make and enforce regulations regarding PTAs.

In addition, the federal government regulates some aspects of the PTA profession, for example as relates to patient privacy. When applicable, federal regulations preempt state regulations, although the state is free to pass laws that are stricter than the applicable federal laws.

Because understanding how both federal and state laws impact licensed PTAs, many states currently demand that any PTA candidates take and pass a jurisprudence exam. Unlike other examinations, the jurisprudence exam does not evaluate the PTA’s professional skills, but his or her understanding of the law and regulations that the PTA must follow.

How Do I become a Licensed PTA?

Because PTAs are licensed by the state, the educational requirements to become a PTA can vary from state to state.

However, most states have a relatively similar licensure process that includes the following requirements:

  • Be at least 18 years of age and have completed high school or an equivalent educational program.
  • Successfully complete an accredited PTA program.
  • Take and pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE), in addition to any state mandated jurisprudence examinations.
  • Register with the state board or department in charge of professional licensure.

In addition, some states mandate that individuals who have been found guilty of certain crimes may be required to submit to further interviews to determine whether or not they are currently eligible.

In some cases, a convict may be allowed to become a licensed PTA after review of his or her case, while other states may outright ban individuals who have been found guilty of certain offenses.

For this reason, anyone who has been convicted or who fears they may be convicted of a felony should immediately contact their state’s licensing authority in order to determine what, if any, impact the conviction will have on their ability to become a PTA.

Preparing to Become a PTA

The first steps towards becoming a licensed PTA start before the individual has graduated from high school.

PTAs require the following abilities in order to effectively carry out their duties:

• The PTA must be fluent in spoken and written English.
• The PTA must be able to understand and follow complex instructions.
• The PTA must have an understanding of basic medical and biological facts.
• PTAs must have an effective command of mathematics.

For this reason, individuals who are intending on becoming a PTA should focus on those classes that can help them obtain these skills. English, math and science courses will help provide the prospective PTA with the grounding he or she needs.

The candidate should also seek to enter any advanced placement (AP) courses that are offered in order to further prepare him or herself for the PTA program.

Bilingual Programs:

Being able to speak more than one language can drastically improve the candidate’s employment options after he or she obtains a PTA license. For this reason, if the school offers foreign language courses, the student should consider taking them.

Although bilingual Spanish speakers are currently in high demand, the knowledge of other languages will also improve the student’s employment options.

What Are PTA Programs Like?

After graduating or obtaining an equivalent degree, the student may enter a PTA program. These programs are most often offered by vocational schools or community colleges.

In general, it takes approximately two years for a full-time student to complete a PTA program. Part-time students will usually take longer to complete the program, depending on their schedule and other factors.

Most PTA programs cover the academic and practical subjects needed to ensure that the students can properly care for their patients once they have received their license.

In general, the instructional program is a mixture of academic classroom studies and practical training.

Students may work with their partners, anatomically appropriate dummies or actual patients during lab sessions. This is especially important because many of the techniques require practical experience in order to effectively carry out.

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What About Part-time Programs

Many individuals interested in becoming a PTA are currently employed or other wise unable to attend classes as a full-time student.

For this reason, most schools offer a part-time schedule that can allow these students to complete the program without being forced to forgo their employment or other obligations.

Part-time students generally take longer to complete the course than full-time students the amount of time varying dependent upon their exact schedule. It is important to note that in some cases a class may have to be completed within a certain time frame before graduation in order to count for credit.

For this reason, any part-time students should make certain that they have consulted with their instructors and faculty adviser in order to ensure that they will have completed all classes within the time frame mandated by their program requirements.

Online and Distance Learning Programs

Some students cannot attend classes physically, due to job or family commitments. For that reason, a growing number of schools offer online and distance learning programs, where the student attends his or her classes via the Internet.

These courses are becoming more popular, especially for working students who find the ability to flexibly schedule their classes quite beneficial.

In most cases, these programs allow the student to view recordings of class sessions, remotely attend ongoing class sessions and even interact with their instructors and fellow classmates via email, text messages and video chat systems.

However, some schools may mandate that the student must physically attend certain classes or examinations. For this reason, anyone planning on completing an online or distance learning program should consult with his or her admissions department before entering the program.

Why is it Important to Attend an Accredited Program?

One of the most important parts of any student’s decision to enter a PTA program is to ensure that the program is properly accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).

The CAPTE is in charge of verifying and certifying that any PTA program offered in the United States conforms to the appropriate educational standards needed to properly train individuals who are seeking to become PTAs.

For this reason, most states will refuse to accept a diploma from a non-accredited program, thus rendering the student’s efforts useless. For this reason, a student should always verify that his or her PTA program is currently accredited and in good standing with the CAPTE.

Foreign programs are not evaluated by the CAPTE. For those students who have completed a foreign program, most states have a process in place to evaluate the program to determine if it is acceptable.

In most cases, the program must be substantially equal to a CAPTE accredited program.

Unfortunately, it can take some time for the state authorities to evaluate the program and so any graduates of a foreign PTA program should submit their evidence well in advance. In most cases, the state licensure authorities will have a specific format for this evidence, and the candidate should be certain to comply with all their requirements in order to avoid a delay in the evaluation process.

What is the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE)?

The NPTE is the nationwide examination used to evaluate the academic and practical qualifications for those students who intend to become PTAs.

This test is a comprehensive exam, which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). The FSBPT regularly evaluates the examination in order to ensure that it is current with the state of the art in physical therapy. For this reason, the NPTE is a vital step in the process of becoming a licensed PTA and a passing score is required by all licensing authorities.

It is important to pass the NPTE the first time it is taken. Although the student can retake the NPTE, he or she would have to re-register for the test, paying the registration fee again. In addition, retaking the test would likely delay the candidate’s ability to obtain a license by up to a year. This could be especially damaging for those students who have ongoing living or student loan expenses.

Finally, in some cases a state may restrict the number of times a student may retake the examination. In some cases, the state board will require that students who have failed to pass the test submit documentation showing that they are attempting to rectify the academic issues preventing them from passing the test.

In other cases, there may be a hard limit on the number of times the student can retake the test, after which the student will no longer be eligible to become a licensed PTA in that state. It is extremely important to understand that many states count all attempts to pass the NPTE, not simply the number of times the student repeated the test in that state. For this reason, an individual who has failed the examination multiple times may find his or her ability to practice in other states severely limited, regardless of the PTA’s state of licensure in his or her home state.

What about Financial Aid?

Many students do not have the financial resources to attend school and prefer to limit their work schedule in order to allow themselves to devote as much attention as possible to their education. For this reason, many students obtain student loans or grants in order to pay for their education.

There are a variety of student loan types, both public and private. Depending on the student’s needs, these loan programs can pay for the student’s tuition or fully support his or her living needs.

It is very important to understand the loan repayment terms however. In many cases, the student must begin repaying the loan within a year after he or she has graduated from school. Other loans may have different repayment terms.

In addition, many loans have payment deferment plans for those students who are unable to immediately start repaying them. Federal loans also have income based payment options, which may reduce the student’s monthly payment, until he or she rises beyond a certain income threshold.

Grants and scholarships do not generally require repayment, but are somewhat harder to get than a student loan. In general, this type of financial aid may be awarded to students with high academic qualifications. Other scholarships are targeted at individual groups, usually groups that are traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

Because such a wide range of public and private entities offer scholarships, it is often possible to find a scholarship offer for the student so long as the student is diligent in seeking them out.

Both financial aid and scholarships often have eligibility requirements that the student must meet while he or she is attending the PTA program.

These requirements usually include the following:

  •  Taking a minimum number of course units per semester or quarter.
  • Maintaining a minimum GPA level.
  • Completing the program within a certain time limit.

Failing to adhere to these standards can result in the revocation of the student’s financial aid or scholarship.

career paths for physical therapy assistants

What are My Post Licensure Professional Options?

Once the student has graduated and obtained his or her PTA license, he or she may then seek out other professional opportunities.

The most common choice is to specialize in a certain subfield of physical therapy or seek out training to become a physical therapist or other medical professional.

Can I Specialize in in a Subfield of Physical Therapy

Because the field of physical therapy is so wide, there are a number of physical therapy specialties.

A PTA who chooses to specialize in one of these fields can often improve his or her earning potential and job security.

In some cases, employers may require their PTAs to specialize in a certain field.

What is the Difference Between Formal vs. Informal Specialties?

An important distinction to make when talking about specializing in a subfield of physical therapy is the difference between formally specializing and an informal specialization. 

An informal specialization represents a PTA who focuses on a certain area of expertise but has not sought out a formal certification in that area, either because no such certification is available or because he or she has not yet qualified for it.

For example, a PTA who works primarily with younger patients may be said to be informally specializing in pediatric physical therapy. This can be quite beneficial to the PTAs career. Even if he or she is not formally certified, the employer will be able to attest to the PTA’s specialization and qualifications to any future employer. In addition, PTAs who have obtained extra skills in a specialty can often qualify for a higher salary from their employer.

A formal specialty is a different matter and requires that the PTA conform to a number of requirements set by the certifying authority. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) currently offers certification services and its certification is accepted by most hospitals and other healthcare providers. The APTA has high standards for certification however, and newly licensed PTAs are not eligible for certification.

In general, the APTA has the following standards for certification:

  • Any PTA seeking certification must have at least five years of work experience, of which the majority should be in a field related to his or her desired specialty.
  • A minimum of 60 hours of acceptable continuing education is mandated by the APTA. Of this, at least 45 hours must be related to the desired specialty. Anyone interested in a specialty should contact the APTA to obtain a list of acceptable courses.
  • In order to ensure that the candidate conforms to the APTA’s professional and ethical standards, he or she must provide At least two letters of recommendation. These letters must come from qualified individuals, such as managers or other supervisors, who can attest to the candidate’s qualifications.
  • The candidate must be able to show participation in at least three activities of relevance to his or her desired certification.
  • Only current members of the APTA who are in good standing with the organization are eligible for certification.

Finally, certification is not a substitute for state licensure. The candidate must ensure that he or she remains a licensed PTA at all times.

What if I Transfer to Another State?

If a licensed PTA desires to move to another state, he or she must apply for licensure in that state.

Fortunately, most states allow individuals who have already obtained a license to obtain a state license by proving that their home state’s qualification requirements are substantially equal to the destination state’s requirements.

In most cases, this includes providing certified transcripts and proof of graduation, their NPTE test scores and any other information the state demands.

It is important to note that it is illegal to work as a PTA without holding a license in the state that the individual is currently resident in, regardless of their status in any other state. In addition, licensure by endorsement does not eliminate the need to comply with any extra requirements the state may mandate.

For example, most states require that all new PTAs, regardless of their experience, take the state jurisprudence examination in order to ensure that they are fully aware of their rights and duties under state law.

Can PTAs Use their PTA License to Transfer to Other Careers?

While a PTAs license does not directly allow a PTA to transfer to another career, such as a physical therapist, it can provide the PTA with valuable practical and academic experience that can help progress to other careers. Most

Most importantly, because most PTAs have graduated from a program with an associate’s degree, they can enter a four-year college in order to obtain a bachelor’s degree, which is usually required for higher-level healthcare professions such as becoming a registered nurse, physical therapist or physician.

In addition, by working as a PTA, the employee can make valuable professional and personal connections that can aid him or her in obtaining letters of recommendation that may be of use in entering a new field.

Perhaps most importantly, many of these fields require are very expensive in terms of tuition and other costs. A licensed PTA’s salary can allow the student to complete his or her education without incurring a crippling debt load. This is especially true for students who are entering school at a later period in their life and who may thus also have personal and financial family obligations.


Becoming a PTA can be an excellent professional and personal choice. In addition to earning a generous salary, licensed PTAs are also highly respected by their coworkers, superiors and patients. For

For this reason, individuals who are seeking a career that can be a gateway to a secure middle class lifestyle should seriously consider becoming a licensed PTA.

PTA Schools By State

View what you need to do to become a physical therapist assistant in each state plus view schools offering PTA training.