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Physical therapy assistants and aides prepare patients both physically and psychologically for therapy under the watchful eye of a licensed physical therapist. The objective of physical therapy is two-fold: first prevent permanent disability from injury or illness, and second to have patients resume their regular activities as soon as they are physically capable. Physical therapy assistants and aides work towards these objectives by administering rehabilitation plans that are developed by a licensed physical therapist.
Physical therapy assistants instruct patients in a wide variety of treatments that may encompass manual exercises on a treadmill, stationary bike, or weight lifting equipment. For patients whose therapy requires non-weight bearing exercise, their treatment often includes exercises in a swimming pool. Other forms of treatment administered by the physical therapy assistant involve massages, electrical stimulation, paraffin baths, hot/cold packs and traction. Assistants may also measure a patient's size, flexibility, and range of motion. They may also use ultrasound equipment to evaluate discomfort patients are experiencing with a knee or elbow. Physical therapists may use this data to fit the patient with an orthopedic brace, prostheses, or other support device. Assistants monitor the patient's progress during treatment and report all abnormalities and achievements to the physical therapist for periodic evaluation.
Physical therapy aides help make therapy sessions productive. They are usually responsible for keeping the treatment area clean and organized, and preparing for each patient's therapy. When patients needs assistance to or from the treatment area, aides may push them in a wheelchair, or provide them with a shoulder to lean on. Aides encourage patients during therapy sessions, and watch to see that exercises are performed correctly so as to attain the maximum benefit and to guard against further injury. Aides consult with the therapist or assistant if patients are experiencing difficulty with the treatment. Because they are not licensed, aides perform a smaller range of tasks than physical therapy assistants.
The duties of assistants and aides include some clerical tasks such as ordering depleted supplies, maintaining patient records, answering the phones, and filling out insurance forms and other paperwork. Records kept by the assistant or aide keep the therapist abreast of progress and any problems that may develop during treatment. The extent to which an aide, or even an assistant, performs clerical tasks depends on the size and location of the facility.
The hours and days that physical therapy assistants and aides work vary depending on the facility and whether they are full-time or part- time employees. In 1994, approximately 4 out 5 assistants worked in a full-time, salaried capacity. Many private physical therapy offices have evening and weekend office hours to help coincide with patients' personal schedules.
Physical therapy 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, constant kneeling, stooping and standing for long periods of time are all part of the job. In some cases assistants may need to help lift patients, therefore physical therapy programs strongly recommend against anyone prone to back problems becoming a physical therapy assistant.
Physical therapy assistants and aides held 78,000 jobs in 1994. They work alongside physical therapists in a variety of settings. Over half of all assistants and aides work in hospitals or private physical therapy offices. Others work in clinics, nursing homes, schools and even inside patients' homes. In sports medicine, they may work part of the time on the sidelines of sporting events, or in swimming pools performing aqua therapy.
Physical therapy assistants typically have earned an associate's degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant program. As of January 1996, 41 States and Puerto Rico required assistants to be certified or licensed. Other requirements include certification in CPR and First Aid, and a minimum number of hours of clinical experience.
According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), there were 173 accredited physical therapist assistant programs in the United States, with another 54 in development as of June 1995. Accredited physical therapy 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. The programs are divided into academic study and "hands on'' clinical experience. Academic coursework initially includes algebra, anatomy and physiology, biology, chemistry, and psychology. Before students embark on their clinical field experience in a hospital or private clinic, many programs require that students complete a semester of anatomy and physiology and have certifications in CPR and First Aid. Both educators and prospective employers view clinical experience as an integral part of ensuring that students understand the responsibilities of a physical therapy assistant.
Employers typically require physical therapy aides to have a high school diploma, strong interpersonal skills, and a desire to assist people in need. Most employers provide aides clinical training on the job.
Physical therapy assistants and aides is expected to be one of the fastest growing occupations through the year 2005. Opportunities should be especially favorable for assistants unless the number of new graduates increases significantly. Reports consistently indicate employers currently are having difficulty finding qualified candidates for job openings.
Demand for physical therapy assistants and aides will continue to rise as the median age of Americans increases. The elderly consume a disproportionate share of physical therapy services. As the "baby boom'' generation ages, demand for services associated with geriatric medicine will grow significantly. Older patients often need more assistance in their treatment, making the roles of assistants and aides vital.
Shortages of physical therapists in many areas makes hiring licensed assistants an attractive alternative. After a patient is evaluated and a treatment plan is designed by the physical therapist, the patient can be turned over to an assistant. The licensed assistant can administer many aspects of the treatment prescribed by the therapist. By increasing the role of physical therapy assistants relative to physical therapists, more patients receive care and labor costs are substantially lower.
While the number of accredited programs has increased, enrollment in each has not thus limiting the growth in newly trained assistants. The size of many programs has been limited because of the difficulties in recruiting qualified instructors-educational institutions are often outbid for their services by other employers.
According to the limited information available, starting salaries for physical therapy assistants average about $22,500 a year. Starting salaries of assistants working in hospitals tended to be lower than those in private practice. As an inducement, many hospitals offer assistants a structured path of advancement and a chance to work with a varied patient population. In private practice, experienced physical therapy assistants earn, on average, about $24,000 a year.
Physical therapy assistants and aides work under the supervision of physical therapists. Other occupations in the healthcare field that work under the supervision of professionals include dental, medical, occupational therapy, optometric, recreational therapy, and pharmacy assistants.
Information on a career as a physical therapy assistant or aide, and a list of schools offering accredited programs can be obtained from:
The American Physical Therapy Association, 1111 North Fairfax Street, Alexandria, VA 22314-1488.
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