Physical therapist assistants help physical therapists treat patients with physical conditions that are painful or limit mobility. As part of a physical therapy team, they help patients affected by arthritis, fractures, cerebral palsy, back pain, heart disease and injuries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 63,800 physical therapist assistants employed in 2008, and that number should increase in the future as the elderly population in need of therapeutic care grows.
Under the supervision of a physical therapist, physical therapist assistants administer treatment to patients. They help oversee exercises and therapeutic procedures such as electrical stimulation, ultrasound and mechanical traction. Physical therapist assistants may also perform therapeutic massage and train patients in proper gait and balance. They make note of patients' responses to treatment and inform physical therapists of progress or side effects. Physical therapist assistants may also show patients how to use crutches, and prepare other therapy-related equipment for therapy sessions. Part of a physical therapist assistant's job is also administrative, and may include answering phones, handling insurance paperwork and ordering supplies.
Most state laws require physical therapist assistants to have at least an associate's degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 223 programs for physical therapist assistants accredited by the American Physical Therapy Association on Accreditation in Physical Therapy in 2009. Most of these programs require two years of full-time study and terminate in an associate's degree. They instruct students in a variety of subjects including anatomy, psychology, algebra and English. Physical therapist assistant students must also become certified in CPR and gain clinical experience at treatment centers so they become comfortable working with patients. Physical therapist assistants must become licensed upon graduation, which requires successful completion of the National Physical Therapy Exam. In some states, they may be required to pass a state licensing exam instead. Consult your state licensing board to verify licensing requirements.
Physical therapist assistants generally work in hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and treatment centers. Most physical therapist assistants work standard 40-hour weeks, but some outpatient treatment centers may require evening and weekend work as well. Physical therapist assistants must be physically fit because the job requires lifting and moving patients as well as kneeling, bending and standing for long periods of time.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median wages for physical therapist assistants were $46,140 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent were paid between $37,170 and $54,900. The lowest 10 percent were paid less than $28,580, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $63,830. The highest paid physical therapist assistants worked in home health care services, earning a median annual wage of $51,950.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment for physical therapist assistants will grow by 35 percent between 2008 and 2018, which is a much faster rate than the average for all occupations. Physical therapist assistants should find especially good opportunities at facilities that care for the elderly, such as acute hospitals, skilled nursing and orthopedic settings.
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