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Physical Therapists Aid
Significant Points
  • Employment is projected to grow much faster than average.
  • Physical therapist assistants should have very good job prospects; on the other hand, aides may face keen competition from the large pool of qualified applicants.
  • Aides usually learn skills on the job, while physical therapist assistants have an associate degree; most States require licensing for assistants.
  • Most jobs are in offices of other health practitioners and in hospitals.
Nature of the Work

Physical therapist assistants and aides help physical therapists to provide treatment that improves patient mobility, relieves pain, and prevents or lessens physical disabilities of patients. A physical therapist might ask a physical therapist assistant to help patients exercise or learn to use crutches, for example, or an aide to gather and prepare therapy equipment. Patients include accident victims and individuals with disabling conditions such as lower-back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries, and cerebral palsy.

Physical therapist assistants assist physical therapists in providing care to patients. Under the direction and supervision of physical therapists, they provide exercise, instruction; therapeutic methods like electrical stimulation, mechanical traction, and ultrasound; massage; and gait and balance training. Physical therapist assistants record the patient's responses to treatment and report the outcome of each treatment to the physical therapist.

Physical therapist aides help make therapy sessions productive, under the direct supervision of a physical therapist or physical therapist assistant. They usually are responsible for keeping the treatment area clean and organized and for preparing for each patient's therapy. When patients need assistance moving to or from a treatment area, aides assist in their transport. Because they are not licensed, aides do not perform the clinical tasks of a physical therapist assistant in States where licensure is required.

The duties of aides include some clerical tasks, such as ordering depleted supplies, answering the phone, and filling out insurance forms and other paperwork. The extent to which an aide or an assistant performs clerical tasks depends on the needs and organization of the facility.

Work environment. Physical therapist assistants and aides need a moderate degree of strength because of the physical exertion required in assisting patients with their treatment. In some cases, assistants and aides need to lift patients. Frequent kneeling, stooping, bending, and standing for long periods also are part of the job.

The hours and days that physical therapist assistants and aides work vary with the facility. About 28 percent of all physical therapist assistants and aides work part-time. Many outpatient physical therapy offices and clinics have evening and weekend hours, to coincide with patients' personal schedules.

Therapy Aid, GS-0636-01

Nature, range, and complexity of work

Therapy Aids GS-1 perform simple and repetitive tasks which require no previous experience. Tasks such as the following are designed to equip the therapy aid with the habits, attitudes, and skills necessary to perform work of the GS-2 level in this occupation:

  • Distribute materials to patients for use in treatment activities.
  • Clear worktables following treatment.
  • Replenish storage cabinets or worktables in treatment area with supplies and materials.
  • Provide support to patients transferring on or off treatment tables in physical therapy.
  • Clean tanks and tubs used in hydrotherapy.
  • Assist physically disabled patients in dressing and undressing for physical therapy treatment.
  • Level of responsibility

    Therapy Aids GS-1 receive detailed instructions and training in specific duties which are clearly defined. Oral instructions are given at the beginning of each new task and work is closely checked by a therapist or therapy assistant for satisfactory fulfillment of instructions.

    Therapy Aid, GS-0636-02

    Nature, range, and complexity of work

    Therapy Aids GS-2 perform a variety of tasks which require a limited knowledge of work procedures and understanding of the types of equipment and materials used in the therapy. By comparison, Therapy Aids GS-1 perform simple, repetitive tasks which require no previous experience. The following examples are representative of work at GS-2:

  • Positions and steadies patients receiving physical or kinesiotherapy treatment.
  • Fills tanks used in hydrotherapy; adds specific quantity of prophylactic solution; tests water for proper temperature.
  • Attends patient during treatment, observes safety measures and reports unfavorable patient reaction to supervisor.
  • Keeps clinic and all equipment clean and ready for use.
  • Performs routine clerical tasks such as checking and recording attendance of patients.
  • Level of responsibility

    At the beginning of each new task, the Therapy Aid GS-2 receives instructions concerning work methods and procedures to be followed. These procedures require strict adherence to guidelines and precise attention to detail. The Therapy Aid GS-2 receives increasingly less specific guidance as his knowledge of the work and the procedures grows. On routine assignments he performs the work under general supervision following the established guides, with occasional spot-check of work by supervisor, either during performance or upon completion of the task.

    For tasks previously performed, the Therapy Aid GS-2 receives instructions which indicate only what is to be done. By comparison, the Therapy Aid GS-1 receives more detailed instructions on procedures to be followed.

    Therapy Aid, GS-0636-03

    Nature, range, and complexity of work

    Therapy Aids GS-3 perform tasks which (a) require the application of a knowledge of a variety of hospital or clinical procedures and (b) involve participating directly in treating patients. The GS-3 aid differs from the GS-2 by actively participating in the treatment process and by instructing and guiding patients in the performance of simple prescribed tasks involved in treatment activities.

    Assignments are planned so that the GS-3 aid acquires skill in observing patients' conditions and behavior and in establishing and maintaining effective relationships with patients.

    Therapy Aids GS-3 perform such tasks as:

  • Prepare patients for treatment of physical therapy or kinesiotherapy; set up and adjust equipment; explain treatment; operate lifting devices; provide support to patients during ambulation or gait training.
  • Administer a few hydrotherapy treatments which include baths and hot and cold packs; assist patients in and out of tubs; take pulse; note physical condition and reactions.
  • Assemble and lay out materials for woodworking, leather craft, or other projects in occupational or manual arts therapy; guide patients in working on simple projects; observe progress and reactions of patients and report information to supervisor.
  • Direct or help patients to perform unskilled tasks in hospital services which are planned for therapeutic value in rehabilitation of patients. Activities include mowing lawns, raking leaves, shoveling snow, watering and cultivating vegetable and flower beds, unloading supplies, sorting and folding linen in laundry.
  • Level of responsibility

    By comparison to GS-2 the Therapy Aid GS-3 is required to apply a knowledge of treatment techniques and procedures which he has previously acquired. He receives specific instructions from his supervisor concerning the treatment objectives of each patient, the specific treatment procedures to be used, the reactions or conditions to be reported, and the special precautions to be observed.

    The supervisor is present to observe work in progress, to ensure use of appropriate treatment techniques and to give guidance when changes in treatment procedures are necessary. The supervisor reviews the work of the therapy aid for effectiveness in motivating patients, for correct application of treatment procedures, and for accuracy in observing progress and reactions of patients. By comparison, at grade GS-2 review is concerned with performance of tasks that are preparatory or auxiliary to treatment.

    Physical Therapy Assistant, GS-0636-04

    Nature, range, and complexity of work

    Therapy Assistants GS-4 differ from those at the GS-3 level by working with a regularly assigned number of patients whom they (a) supervise and instruct in a variety of the techniques involved in the activities of a particular field of therapy, or (b) treat with specified forms of physical therapy which are constant throughout the patient's treatment program. Therapy assistants treat patients, either in groups or individually.

    Therapy Assistant GS-4 perform the following duties:

  • Explain the treatment activity and guide patients in the techniques to be used; motivate and stimulate their interest and participation in the treatment activity.
  • Assign and advance individual patients to selected phases of treatment activities according to the therapy assistant's evaluation of their need and ability.
  • Observe patients for changes in attitudes, behavior and physical condition; assess and report to supervisor both favorable and unfavorable changes, special problems, absences, accidents, or safety hazards.
  • Assess patient's productivity, ability, attitude, attention span, and sociability in relation to the objectives of the treatment plan.
  • The following assignments are illustrative:

  • Provides guidance and instruction to a group of patients who have been assigned to hospital laundry for therapeutic work activity; determines individual work assignments that fit the treatment goals and that the patient can and will do; assesses patient's performance; prepares notes reporting on accomplishments of patient in treatment, extent of progress towards treatment objectives, span of attention, and interest.
  • Makes trial assignments of woodworking projects to determine patient's interest and skills; instructs patient in various woodworking operations; provides encouragement when necessary to motivate patient; varies pace of treatment in accordance with patient's moods and attitudes.
  • Administers a variety of selected forms of physical therapy such as ultraviolet, infrared, and massage; instructs patients in performing simple active exercises, transfer procedures (e.g., from bed to wheelchair), use of crutches in walking and in ascending and descending stairs.
  • Instructs a group of geriatric patients in performing general reconditioning exercises; demonstrates routines; encourages participation and accomplishment; assesses patients' interest, level of participation, and physical and mental reactions.
  • Level of responsibility

    Therapy Assistants GS-4 work under general supervision as indicated below whereas Therapy Aids GS-3 typically receive close and continuing supervision. Therapy Assistants GS-4 adhere to carefully prescribed procedures in working with patients and utilize standard treatment methods for activities of the specialized therapy. They plan and make assignments to patients within the range of the project and the limitations established by the supervisor. Guidance is provided by the supervisor or a therapist who assigns and schedules the patients, explains treatment objectives, activities or treatment procedures to be used, precautions to be observed and special conditions to be noted. The Therapy Assistant GS-4 carries out his assignments within these guidelines, seeking the guidance or assistance of the supervisor when the patient shows adverse physical or mental reaction during treatment.

    Therapy assistants have authority to change assignments to patients or pace of activity when patient's condition so indicates.

    Physical Therapy Assistant, GS-0636-05

    Nature, range, and complexity of work

    Therapy Assistants GS-5 utilize a broad, practical knowledge of treatment techniques and procedures in providing treatment to an assigned number of patients. Therapy Assistants GS-5 work with patients whose physical or mental condition presents major obstacles to achievement of therapeutic goals. In comparison with the grade GS-4 level, Therapy Assistants GS-5 must have a greater sensitivity to changes in behavior or in the physical condition of patients, greater knowledge of treatment techniques, and greater skill in motivating patients.

    As a regular, recurring duty, Therapy Assistants GS-5 develop progressive types of treatment plans. They employ standard treatment procedures, making minor modifications as necessary. They adapt various treatment activities to meet the specific needs of individual patients. They observe, assess, and report on the progress and reactions of patients, utilizing insight and mature judgment acquired through extensive experience in administering treatment to patients.

    Therapy Assistants GS-5 perform the following duties:

  • Explore with newly assigned patients their general interests, aptitudes, moods, reactions, and desire to participate in therapeutic projects. Work with patients in a variety of trial assignments to explore potential abilities, work tolerance, span of attention, and reaction to participation.
  • Develop progressive types of treatment for each patient on the basis of information obtained through interview, observation and trial activity. Determine kinds of graded projects and sequence of operations which will advance patient towards treatment goals.
  • Provide information and assessments of patients at medical staff meetings concerning the participation, progress, behavior, mental and/or physical reactions of patients assigned for treatment.
  • Illustrative assignments of Therapy Assistants GS-5 are as follows:

  • Selects appropriate woodworking activities to be used for prevocational testing of patients for whom therapeutic work activity has been prescribed; assesses aptitudes of patients, mental and physical tolerance of work, and behavior in a shop environment; prepares progressive types of treatment plans for each patient based upon information provided by supervisor concerning treatment objectives.
  • Plans and conducts a program of occupational therapy activities for geriatric patients having physical disabilities; teaches activities of daily living such as dressing, washing, shaving and use of eating utensils, to meet rehabilitation objective of self-care; uses a variety of arts and crafts media to provide beneficial exercise; advances patients to higher level of activity based upon observation and assessment of their participation and recommends termination of therapy.
  • Administers the full range of such physical therapy agents as light, water, heat, cold, electricity, transfer procedures, and therapeutic exercises. Administers the complete treatment procedures for the assigned forms of physical therapy.
  • Level of responsibility

    Therapy Assistants GS-5 receive general supervision from a therapist who assigns patients for treatment, indicates the treatment objectives, and provides information concerning special physical or mental conditions of acutely ill patients.

    In comparison with GS-4 assistants, Therapy Assistants GS-5 have greater responsibility for judging the aptitudes and potentials of patients receiving treatment and determining when patients have advanced sufficiently to be given more difficult activities. Therapy Assistants GS-5 regularly develop progressive treatment plans based on their evaluation of patients. These plans are reviewed by a therapist prior to execution. GS-5 assistants have authority to make alterations in treatment procedures when patients fail to respond favorably. At the GS-4 level, such changes typically must have prior approval of the supervisor.

    The supervisor observes work occasionally for compliance with the medical prescription and objectives of treatment; for effectiveness of assistant in planning, developing, and administering treatment; and for adequacy of patients' progress and participation. The supervisor reviews reports for results achieved with patients, and adequacy and significance of the information. At the GS-4 level, review is concerned with use of appropriate treatment techniques, adherence to the treatment plan, and adequacy and correctness of information in reports.

    Physical Therapy Assistant, GS-0636-06

    Nature, range, and complexity of work

    Therapy Assistants GS-6, as a regular and recurring duty, plan and carry out highly specialized and diversified treatment for patients whose physical and mental condition requires the application of nonstandard in addition to standard treatment procedures and approaches. GS-6 assistants make frequent and extensive changes in procedures and approaches to enable the patient to overcome his disabilities and continue the treatment. They must judge whether the treatment is causing a negative or adverse effect on other conditions not under treatment. On the basis of these observations and conclusions, GS-6 assistants change or modify treatment procedures, content of the treatment plan, and approaches used in treating the patient.

    GS-6 assistants draw upon a broad practical knowledge of the characteristics of physical and mental illness in judging the conditions of patients, in recognizing the relationships between patient's disabilities and the effects of treatment, and in assessing accurately both positive and negative responses to treatment. By comparison, Therapy Assistants GS-5 plan and carry out the full range of treatment for patients with conditions which respond to the application of the standard treatment procedures or require minor modification in these procedures to achieve beneficial results.

    The following assignment is illustrative of the advanced level of knowledge, competence, and responsibility characterizing positions at grade GS-6:

  • Plans and administers manual arts therapy as the employee in charge of specialized treatment area such as a shop or greenhouse. For example, plans the treatment of neuropsychiatric patients in one or more greenhouses; determines plants, fertilizers, equipment, and schedules for planting and cultivation consistent with horticultural requirements and treatment objectives for patients; selects and adapts treatment activities to needs and abilities of individual patients; modifies treatment procedures and treatment approaches to enable patient to overcome handicaps and progress; trains and supervises volunteers who work with patients.
  • Level of responsibility

    Therapy Assistants GS-6 work with a high degree of independence in planning and carrying out highly specialized and complex treatment in working out treatment routines, adapting treatment procedures, and in changing or modifying the content of treatment plans.

    GS-6 assistants adapt or make changes in procedures and approaches without prior approval of the supervisor. They plan treatment without review for patients who are not critically or acutely ill. Reports of patients' condition, responses, progress, and completion of treatment are reviewed by the therapist for general adequacy and for effectiveness in achieving objectives. By comparison, Therapy Assistants GS-5 plan and carry out a full range of treatment for their patients, using the standard treatment procedures to which they make minor modifications as necessary. The supervisor of the GS-5 assistant interprets the medical prescription, states treatment objectives, and reviews treatment plans prior to execution.

    Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

    Most physical therapy aides are trained on the job, while almost all physical therapist assistants earn an associate degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant program. Most States require licensing for physical therapist assistants.

    Education and training. Employers typically require physical therapy aides to have a high school diploma. They are trained on the job, and most employers provide clinical on-the-job training.

    In most States, physical therapist assistants are required by law to hold an associate degree. The American Physical Therapy Association’s Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education accredits postsecondary physical therapy assistant programs. In 2009, there were 223 accredited programs, which usually last 2 years and culminate in an associate degree.

    Programs are divided into academic coursework and hands-on clinical experience. Academic coursework includes algebra, English, anatomy and physiology, and psychology. Clinical work includes certifications in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and other first aid, and field experience in treatment centers. Both educators and prospective employers view clinical experience as essential to ensuring that students understand the responsibilities of a physical therapist assistant.

    Licensure. Licensing is not required to practice as a physical therapy aide. However, most States regulate physical therapist assistants through licensure, registration, or certification. Most States require physical therapist assistants to graduate from an accredited education program and pass the National Physical Therapy Exam. Some States may require physical therapy assistants to pass State exams. Many States also require continuing education credits for physical therapist assistants to maintain licensure. Complete information on regulations can be obtained from State licensing boards.

    Other qualifications. Physical therapist assistants and aides should be well-organized, detail oriented, and caring. They should be able to take direction and work well in a team situation. They usually have strong interpersonal skills and a desire to help people in need.

    Advancement. Some physical therapist aides advance to become therapist assistants after gaining experience and completing an accredited education program.

    Some physical therapist assistants advance their knowledge and skills in a variety of clinical areas after graduation. The American Physical Therapy Association recognizes physical therapist assistants who have gained additional skills in geriatric, pediatric, musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, integumentary, and cardiopulmonary physical therapy. Physical therapist assistants may also advance in non-clinical areas, like administrative positions. These positions might include organizing all the assistants in a large physical therapy organization or acting as the director for a specific department such as aquatic therapy. Physical therapist assistants may also pursue a career in teaching at an accredited physical therapist assistant academic program.

    Job Outlook

    Employment is expected to grow much faster than average because of increasing demand for physical therapy services. Job prospects for physical therapist assistants are expected to be very good. Aides may experience keen competition for jobs.

    Employment change. Employment of physical therapist assistants and aides is expected to grow by 35 percent from 2008 through 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations. Changes to restrictions on reimbursement for physical therapy services by third-party payers will increase patient access to services and, thus, increase demand. The increasing number of people who need therapy reflects, in part, the increasing elderly population. The elderly population is particularly vulnerable to chronic and debilitating conditions that require therapeutic services. These patients often need additional assistance in their treatment, making the roles of assistants and aides vital. In addition, the large baby-boom generation is entering the prime age for heart attacks and strokes, further increasing the demand for cardiac and physical rehabilitation.

    Medical and technological developments should permit an increased percentage of trauma victims and newborns with birth defects to survive, creating added demand for therapy and rehabilitative services.

    Physical therapists are expected to increasingly use assistants and aides to reduce the cost of physical therapy services. Once a patient is evaluated and a treatment plan is designed by the physical therapist, the physical therapist assistant can provide many parts of the treatment, as directed by the therapist.

    Job prospects. Opportunities for individuals interested in becoming physical therapist assistants are expected to be very good; with help from physical therapist assistants, physical therapists are able to manage more patients. However, physical therapy aides may face keen competition from the large pool of qualified individuals. In addition to employment growth, job openings will result from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation permanently. Job opportunities should be particularly good in acute hospital, skilled nursing, and orthopedic settings, where the elderly are most often treated. Job prospects should be especially favorable in rural areas, as many physical therapists tend to cluster in highly populated urban and suburban areas.

    Earnings

    Median annual wages of physical therapist assistants were $46,140 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $37,170 and $54,900. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $28,580, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $63,830. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of physical therapist assistants in May 2008 were:

    Home health care services $51,950
    Nursing care facilities 51,090
    General medical and surgical hospitals 45,510
    Offices of other health practitioners 44,580
    Offices of physicians 43,390

    Median annual wages of physical therapist aides were $23,760 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $19,910 and $28,670. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $17,270, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $33,540. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of physical therapy aides in May 2008 were:

    Nursing care facilities $26,530
    General medical and surgical hospitals 24,780
    Specialty (except psychiatric and substance abuse) hospitals 24,590
    Offices of physicians 23,730
    Offices of other health practitioners 22,550
    Sources of Additional Information

    Career information on physical therapist assistants and a list of schools offering accredited programs can be obtained from:

    • The American Physical Therapy Association, 1111 North Fairfax St., Alexandria, VA 22314-1488. Internet: http://www.apta.org

    Information on obtaining Rehabilitation Physical Therapists Aid positions with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.gov or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724–1850 or  (703) 724–1850  or TDD (978) 461–8404 and   (978) 461–8404. These numbers are not toll free, and charges may result. For advice on how to find and apply for Federal jobs, download the Insider's Guide to the Federal Hiring Process” online here.

    Sources:

    • Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition; and
    • Office of Personnel Management, Position Classification Standards.

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