Physical therapy is the practice of helping people improve their quality of life by optimizing their ability to move. While there are actually several types of physical therapy jobs — including physical therapist assistant and physical therapy aide — a physical therapist is someone who has earned a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. The majority of physical therapists do not practice in hospitals but instead work in outpatient clinics and offices, schools, rehabilitation facilities, nursing facilities and a variety of other settings.
Teaching and assisting patients in exercises that improve mobility, strength and coordination.
Training patients in using crutches, canes or walkers properly.
Administering massage or electrotherapy.
While a physical therapist assistant maintains their own license, they must practice under the direction and supervision of a physical therapist (DPT). The physical therapy assistant reports to their supervising DPT and helps implement patient treatment plans but does not diagnose or create plans on their own; they also have fewer responsibilities than a physical therapist. To become a physical therapist assistant, you need to obtain an associate degree from a two-year program that is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) and successfully complete a national licensing exam.
Physical Therapy Aide Jobs
Physical therapy aides report to the supervising physical therapist as well as any collaborating physical therapy assistants. Of these physical therapy careers, physical therapy aides have the least amount of responsibility. Physical therapy aides typically perform tasks that are indirectly related to patient care, such as:
Cleaning treatment areas and linens.
Setting up therapy equipment.
Helping patients move to or from a therapy area.
Preparing patient transport.
Answering phones, scheduling patients and other clerical tasks.
Three Top Requirements to Be a Physical Therapist, PTA or PT Aide
While physical therapist (PT), physical therapist assistants (PTA) and physical therapist aides vary in their responsibilities, salary and required education, they do have some overlapping requirements in common.
Active listening: Physical therapists, assistants and aides need to gather information from patients while allowing them to feel seen and heard.
Critical thinking: Patients may present complex symptoms or unpredictable responses to treatment, and physical therapists must look for patterns and processes in order to diagnose and treat effectively.
Empathy and compassion: Positive “bedside manner” is essential as physical therapists guide patients through recovery.
Physical fitness: Physical therapy is an active career where you may be on your feet most of the day. You may need to help support patients as they move or lift and manipulate medical equipment.
Some physical therapy skills can transfer to other job environments:
Giving health care instruction.
Planning and implementing treatment plans.
Operating medical equipment.
Using tablets, laptops and other devices.
Complying with HIPAA and other health care privacy regulations.
Physical therapist salaries vary depending on education level, years of experience, work environment and location, among other factors. The median annual wage for physical therapists was $87,930, or $42.47 per hour, in May 2018.