Physical Therapist Assistants & Aides

Significant Points

  • Employment is projected to increase over the 1998-2008 period, but due to the effects of Federal limits on reimbursement for therapy services, the majority of expected employment growth is expected to occur during the second half of the projection period.
  • Most licensed physical therapist assistants have an associate’s degree, but physical therapist aides usually learn skills on the job.
  • Two-thirds of jobs for physical therapist assistants and aides were in hospitals or offices of physical therapists.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Physical therapist assistants and aides perform components of physical therapy procedures and related tasks selected and delegated by a supervising physical therapist. These workers assist physical therapists in providing services that help improve mobility, relieve pain, and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities of patients suffering from injuries or disease. Patients include accident victims and individuals with disabling conditions, such as low back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries, and cerebral palsy.

Physical therapist assistants perform a variety of tasks. Treatment procedures delegated to these workers, under the direction of therapists, involve exercises, massages, electrical stimulation, paraffin baths, hot and cold packs, traction, and ultrasound. Physical therapist assistants record the patient’s responses to treatment and report to the physical therapist the outcome of each treatment.

Physical therapist aides help make therapy sessions productive, under the direct supervision of a physical therapist or physical therapist assistant. They are usually responsible for keeping the treatment area clean and organized and preparing for each patient’s therapy. When patients need assistance moving to or from a treatment area, aides push them in a wheelchair, or provide them with a shoulder to lean on. Because they are not licensed, aides perform a more limited range of tasks than physical therapist assistants do.

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 size and location of the facility.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

The hours and days that physical therapist assistants and aides work vary, depending on the facility and whether they are full or part-time employees. Many outpatient physical therapy offices and clinics have evening and weekend hours, to help coincide with patients’ personal schedules.

Physical therapist assistants and aides need to have a moderate degree of strength, due to the physical exertion required in assisting patients with their treatment. For example, in some cases, assistants and aides need to help lift patients. Additionally, constant kneeling, stooping, and standing for long periods are all part of the job.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Physical therapist assistants and aides held 82,000 jobs in 1998. They work alongside physical therapists in a variety of settings. Over two-thirds of all assistants and aides work in hospitals or offices of physical therapists. Others work in nursing and personal care facilities, outpatient rehabilitation centers, offices and clinics of physicians, and home health agencies.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Physical therapist aides are trained on the job, but physical therapist assistants typically have earned an associate’s degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant program. As of January 1997, 44 States and Puerto Rico regulated assistants. Additional requirements include certification in CPR and other first aid and a minimum number of hours of clinical experience.

According to the American Physical Therapy Association, there were 274 accredited physical therapist assistant programs in the United States as of 1999. Accredited physical therapist assistant programs are designed to last 2 years, or four semesters, and culminate in an associate’s degree. Admission into physical therapist assistant programs is competitive, and it is not unusual for colleges to have long waiting lists of prospective candidates. Programs are divided into academic study and hands on clinical experience. Academic coursework includes algebra, anatomy and physiology, biology, chemistry, and psychology. Before students begin their clinical field experience, many programs require that they complete a semester of anatomy and physiology and have certifications in CPR and other first aid. Both educators and prospective employers view clinical experience as an integral part of ensuring that students understand the responsibilities of a physical therapist assistant.

Employers typically require physical therapist aides to have a high school diploma, strong interpersonal skills, and a desire to assist people in need. Most employers provide clinical on-the-job training.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Employment of physical therapist assistants and aides is expected to grow much faster than the average through the year 2008. However, Federal legislation imposing limits on reimbursement for therapy services may continue to adversely affect the job market for physical therapist assistants and aides in the near term. Because of the effects of these provisions, the majority of expected employment growth for physical therapist assistants and aides is expected to occur in the second half of the projection period.

Over the long run, demand for physical therapist assistants and aides will continue to rise, with growth in the number of individuals with disabilities or limited function. The rapidly growing elderly population is particularly vulnerable to chronic and debilitating conditions that require therapeutic services. These patients often need additional assistance in their treatment, making the roles of assistants and aides vital. The large baby-boom generation is entering the prime age for heart attacks and strokes, further increasing the demand for cardiac and physical rehabilitation. Additionally, future medical developments should permit an increased percentage of trauma victims to survive, creating added demand for therapy services.

Licensed physical therapist assistants can enhance the cost-effective provision of physical therapy services. Once a patient is evaluated, and a treatment plan is designed by the physical therapist, the physical therapist assistant can provide many aspects of treatment, as prescribed by the therapist.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median annual earnings of physical therapist assistants and aides were $21,870 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $16,700 and $31,260 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $13,760 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $39,730 a year. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest number of physical therapist assistants and aides in 1997 were as follows:

Hospitals $21,200
Offices of other health care practitioners 20,700
Nursing and personal care facilities 19,200

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Physical therapist assistants and aides work under the supervision of physical therapists. Other assistants and aides in the health care field that work under the supervision of professionals include dental, medical, occupational therapy, optometric, podiatric, recreational therapy, and pharmacy assistants.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

An industry employing physical therapist assistants and aides that appears in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries: Health services

O*NET Codes: 66017 About the O*NET codes

Alphabetical Indexes