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Physical Therapy Assistant Certification and Requirements

Many of us know a person who has turned to a physical therapist for care, whether for help with a sports injury or to become more mobile following an illness or accident. The aging Baby Boomer population is expected to create a growing demand for physical therapists, resulting in more responsibility being placed into the hands of the licensed physical therapy assistants who play an important part in providing basic patient treatment and care.

Physical therapy assistants can work in a variety of places, including hospitals, outpatient clinics or extended-care facilities. They are sometimes referred to as PTAs and can assist physical therapists in treating conditions as varied as carpal tunnel syndrome, fractures, osteoporosis, pelvic pain and traumatic brain injuries, according to the American Physical Therapy Association.

Physical therapist assistants work under the direction and guidance of a physical therapist, who typically has a doctoral or professional degree. More than 70,000 people are employed as physical therapy assistants in the U.S., and job opportunities for them are expected to grow by 41 percent over the 10-year period ending 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov). This job growth is much faster than average. On the job, PTAs can assist by providing a range of techniques to patients, including massage or stretching, or helping them to complete specific exercises that have been prescribed to them through a plan of care by a physical therapist. To seek employment, however, PTAs need to be licensed, which may be referred to as certification in some states, and this means they need to pass a national physical therapy exam.

Educational requirements for physical therapy assistants

An associate degree is typically needed to start a physical therapy assistant career. The BLS suggests that those interested in PA program may wish to seek out one that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation on Physical Therapy Education, which has accredited nearly 300 PTA associate degree programs. This is because graduation from an accredited program is needed to seek state licensure or certification. Passing the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE)-PTA, which is given by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT), is also another requirement to become state licensed.

Educational programs typically feature both classroom and clinical experience, and you can expect clinical practicums to be part of your degree program. You should also learn about anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, kinesiology and therapeutic exercise to help you prepare for a career. You might even find some programs that feature a one-unit course in licensure examination preparation. In fact, the FSBPT reports that 31 states even allow students to take the NPTE-PTA prior to graduation.

Benefits of physical therapy assistant certification

Licensure or certification is valuable because it is needed for PTAs to seek employment in almost all 50 states, according to the BLS. State boards of licensing may also have other requirements for applicants to obtain licensure or certification, which may include passing a state-board examination or undergoing a criminal background check. The FSBPT provides more details about these requirements by state on its website (fsbpt.org). Your state board of licensure will also be able to provide you with more information on licensing requirements.

Before taking the NPTE, you may want to test your skills on the practice exam and assessment tool (PEAT), which is available on the FSBPT website. The actual PTA exam is multiple choice and includes 200 questions. Once passing the exam and obtaining state licensure, continuing education may be required for you to renew or keep your state license.

Sources:

Physical Therapist Assistant Careers Overview, American Physical Therapy Association, http://www.apta.org/PTACareers/Overview/

Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2013, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm

Physical Therapy Assistant Program, Cerritos College Health Occupations Division, http://cms.cerritos.edu/uploads/pta/PTA_PROGRAM_INFORMATION.pdf

Physical Therapist Assistant Program Details, Pima Medical Institute, http://pmi.edu/Programs/Associate/Physical-Therapist-Assistant/LearnMore

NPTE Content, The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, https://www.fsbpt.org/ExamCandidates/NationalExam%28NPTE%29/PrepareforExam/NPTEContent.aspx

Physical Therapy Assistant Schools