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Physical Therapy Aide Education, Schools and Career Overview

Physical therapy aides, also known as rehab aides or rehab techs, are members of physical rehabilitation teams who provide support to physical therapists and physical therapy assistants.  They often act as a second pair of hands to physical therapists and their assistants, and support rehabilitation departments by assisting with many essential patient care tasks, as well as being responsible for a whole host of non-patient care duties like keeping the therapy department clean and well organized.

In many cases, physical therapy aide jobs may involve providing administrative support to clinics or intra-hospital departments by assisting with billing, filing and managing inter-department communication. A physical therapy aide can be the key to a smooth and efficient department as he or she is often responsible for scheduling and patient transport. While a physical therapist or physical therapy assistant is busy with one patient, the PT aide may be greeting the next patient, bringing the patient into the department and preparing the patient for a therapy session.

When a physical therapist or assistant is running a treatment group, a PT aide can be present to help steady patients or transition therapy equipment between activities. When working with a patient who has severely impaired mobility, a therapist may need another person to assist in order to move the patient safely.

Physical therapy aides may work in most medical settings where physical therapists work. This includes acute care hospitals, rehabilitation hospitals, outpatient clinics and skilled nursing facilities.

How to Become a Physical Therapy Aide

Courses in treatment practice prepare physical therapy aides for the responsibility of assisting patients with getting set up on therapeutic exercise equipment, and knowing about the various conditions encountered allows a physical therapy aide to be an effective set of eyes and ears in the department.

Coursework will also train a physical therapy aide with basic instruction specific to use of the equipment essential in a therapy department. A physical therapy aide may take a patient’s blood pressure or take oxygen readings with a pulse oximiter. They may use hydraulic or electric patient lifts and will often use the department’s mobility and exercise equipment. A therapy aide needs to be familiar with wheelchairs and their upkeep and may assist a therapist in use of modalities such as heat, ice, ultrasound or electrical stimulation.

Physical therapy aide degree programs

Individuals who are drawn to the career can pursue formal academic certification through physical therapy aide programs. This provides a foundation in medical terminology and therapeutic principles that can be extremely helpful in the clinical setting. Some choose to move into the career from other health care related professions, such as certified nurse assisting.

A physical therapy aide training program will offer courses on medical terminology, introduction to the discipline (physical therapy, occupational therapy, or both), exercise and mobility principles and health and safety. Some programs also offer introductions to billing principles, office administration and training in customer service and communication. 

No medical degree is necessary to become a physical therapy aide, which makes it a compelling introduction to the field of rehabilitation therapy for people considering a career as physical or occupational therapists. Some choose to complete a physical therapy aide certification program prior to becoming an aide in order to market themselves with the type of education and skills that an employer is looking for when hiring.

Physical therapy aide certification

For people interested in obtaining physical therapy aide certification, applying to a learning institution that offers an appropriate program is a very manageable process. Academic certification is based on learning and instruction and not dependent on a degree, so the application process is often simple and streamlined. Courses take only a few months, and most learning materials can be purchased directly through the program. 

Physical therapy aide licensure

Physical therapy aide is not a licensed position. A dedicated person who wants a career in rehabilitation therapy can enter a PT aide post with a high-school diploma and certification denoting formal physical therapy aide training. By contrast, physical therapists and physical therapy assistants are positions that require specific college degrees and, in most cases, licenses from the state where they live.

While Medicare does not cover therapy services provided by an aide, some private insurers still do. This means that an aide may provide hands-on patient care while under the direct supervision of a physical therapist. It is important to note that in the settings where an aide can provide treatment, a physical therapist -- not a physical therapy assistant -- must be in line of sight. Insurers maintain these guidelines in accordance with the state practice acts for physical therapists.

Physical therapy aide training

In settings where a department uses a computerized scheduling or documentation system, on-the-job training is essential for an aide to be effective in assisting with this aspect of the department’s operation. Additionally, a rehabilitation department will have specific policies and procedures for patient flow and transportation, and a PT aide will learn those practices on site.  Organizations that offer specialty clinical services such as neurological rehab or wound care, for instance, may need to teach the specific support activities their therapy aides are responsible for.

Career advancement for physical therapy aides

If you are interested in becoming a physical therapist, occupational therapist, or PT or OT assistant, entering the profession as a therapy aide may also be a good choice. This can help meet contact hour requirements that some departments have for admission, while offering a real-world introduction to the field of rehabilitation that other students may not have until much later in their education.

Physical Therapy Aide Skills and Qualities

The first quality a PT aide should have is a strong desire to help people and to make a difference in the lives of others. While the amount of actual hands-on care a PT aide may provide varies, he or she will still always have lots of contact with people who have been ill or injured and a strong sense of compassion and commitment creates the best relationship with patients and leads to the greatest satisfaction in one’s work. Beyond that, PT aides do well when they are detail oriented, organized, work well under pressure, are effective multi-taskers that take direction well. Because PT aides function in a therapy support role, instructions may come from physical therapists, assistants, and the department director. A good physical therapy aide needs to be a good listener.

Because physical therapy aide jobs involve interacting with patients, even if the support they provide is more administrative than clinical, it is essential that PT aides have good communication skills and provide excellent customer service.  Patients in both inpatient and outpatient settings will be struggling with any number of illnesses or injuries, so a PT aid’s ability to listen well and offer support and attention will help improve the patient experience.

Career Outlook and Salary for Physical Therapy Aides

Many health care positions are increasingly in demand, as an aging population lives longer, healthier lives. For an idea of what you could make as a physical therapy aide, check out the salary data below, which also includes jobs growth numbers on a national scale:

CareerTotal EmploymentAnnual Mean WageProjected Job Growth Rate
Physical Therapist Aides49,290$27,91029.1%
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Sources:

  • Physical Therapist Aides, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes312022.htm
  • Physical Therapist Assistants and Aides, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Jan. 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm
  • Physical Therapist, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Jan. 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm

 

Physical Therapy Aide Schools