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https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapist-assistants-and-aides.htm, accessed June 2018
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Physical therapists work at the forefront of the healthcare rehabilitation field, helping patients improve movement impaired by disease, injury or corrective surgery.
If you have strong interpersonal skills and feel comfortable using your hands to massage or physically assist patients in therapeutic exercises, a career in physical therapy might be a good fit for you. While physical stamina and dexterity play an important role, so does a sense of compassion and a natural desire to help people.
High school graduates, working professionals and adult learners who don't have the time or find it difficult to attend an on-campus program may want to consider earning an online degree in physical therapy. Online degree programs in physical therapy are just as rigorous as on-campus ones and schools can often help students find convenient locations for clinical practice.
What do physical therapists do?
Physical therapists help to restore, maintain, and promote the optimal physical functioning of the body. The role of a physical therapist (PT) can be two-fold:
Rehabilitation — This involves restoring functions, improving mobility, alleviating pain and limiting disabilities in patients who are injured or have a disease that impairs their movements.
Prevention and wellness — PTs create customized fitness and wellness programs to prevent or reduce the risk of loss of mobility before it occurs.
The role of a physical therapist is supported by physical therapy assistants and physical therapy aides. While physical therapist assistants (PTAs) work directly with patients, physical therapy aides carry out clerical duties in the clinic. Physical therapists, physical therapy assistants and aides work in nursing homes, hospitals, home health and orthopedic facilities. They may also work with fitness centers or schools.
Duties in a physical therapy clinic can vary depending on the job profile, but a few common duties include:
- Diagnosing patients and writing out individual care plans
- Supervising and using exercises, stretches and other hands-on therapies for patients to help them recover impaired mobility or manage pain
- Treating patients through massages and recording observations on patients' progress
- Helping patients use equipment like walkers as a part of the therapy plan
- Cleaning treatment areas and setting up therapy equipment
- Scheduling appointments and answering phones
Other professional roles of physical therapists include providing consulting, education, research and administration services.
With the introduction of the direct access program in 2015 as part of the Affordable Care Act legislation, patients can have direct access to some level of treatment from physical therapists without prior prescription from a physician in all 50 states. This has not only increased access to physical therapists but also allows physical therapists to perform their duties autonomously and market their practice directly to consumers. While Medicare beneficiaries can go directly to a PT without a referral from a physician, many insurance companies, too, recognize the benefits of direct access and do not require the referral of a physician to process reimbursements to PTs.
Occupations and Career Outlook
This list of occupations related to a physical therapy degree, along with data drawn from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), can give you an idea of the wages and job projections related to each occupation.
Projected Job Growth
(2016 - 26)
|Physical Therapist Assistants||94,250||$57,750||30.8%|
|Physical Therapist Aides||47,260||$28,500||29.1%|
Choose a degree that can help you meet your career goals
Physical therapy aides may be able to get a job with a high school diploma but having a certificate in physical therapy can increase employability and potential wages.
Physical therapy assistants are required to have a minimum education level of an associate degree in most states.
Nearly 80 percent of physical therapists hold at least a master's degree or a doctoral degree in physical therapy, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. However, to practice as a physical therapist, you must earn a physical therapy degree from a CAPTE- accredited physical therapist education program and pass a state licensure exam.
Online Certificate Programs in Physical Therapy
What can I expect to learn in an online certificate program?
Online certificate programs for physical therapy aides are designed to familiarize students with the needs of a physical therapy clinic or department. Even though physical therapy aides do not treat patients, certificate-level programs are designed to give students an understanding of common ailments and treatment methods used by physiotherapists.
Typical duration: Less than or up to one year
General prerequisites: High school diploma or GED
Typical coursework: Physical therapy certificate programs include subjects related to the basic operation of a healthcare facility and general medical care methods for patients. Some of the core subjects include:
- Introduction to medical terminology
- Customer service and effective communication
- Patient positioning, body mechanics, and transfer techniques
- Exercise and mobility training
- Wheelchairs, assistive devices, and gait training
Additionally, you may be required to complete the practical component at a local clinic in order to graduate.
What can I do after earning a certificate?
Potential occupations may include:
- Clinical rehabilitation aide
- Physical therapist aide
- Physical therapist technician
- Rehabilitation aide
- Rehabilitation attendant
- Restorative care technician
- Occupational therapy aide
Online Associate Degree Programs in Physical Therapy
What can I expect to learn in an online associate degree program?
Online coursework for an associate degree program in physical therapy can include subjects directly associated with patient care and treatment as well as subjects like algebra, anatomy, psychology and clinical practice that may help them in their daily work.
Typical duration: Less than or up to two years
General prerequisites: High school diploma or GED. Applicants may also be required to pass the Health Educations Systems Inc. (HESI) A2 Exam
Typical coursework: Coursework in an online physical therapy degree program may include:
- Introduction to PTA
- Essentials of clinical care
- Neurological/neuromuscular rehabilitation
- Motor development/aging
- Physical therapy interventions
- Therapeutic exercise and orthopedic applications
Additionally, online physical therapy assistant programs may require you to clock in a certain number of hours of clinical work experience.
What can I do after earning an associate degree?
Potential occupations may include:
- Physical therapist assistant
- Home health physical therapist assistant
- Outpatient physical therapist assistant
- Per diem physical therapist assistant
Online Bachelor's Degree Programs in Physical Therapy
What can I expect to learn in an online bachelor's degree program?
According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), "The most common undergraduate majors among PT students include exercise science, biology, kinesiology, and psychology." Students intending to pursue graduate or doctoral programs in physical therapy should consider building a strong foundation in the sciences, including courses in anatomy, biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics and statistics.
Typical duration: Four years
General prerequisites: High school diploma or GED. Applicants may also be required to pass the Health Educations Systems Inc. (HESI) A2 Exam
Typical coursework: In addition to typical coursework that includes core subjects like composition and math, you may find the following courses included in your bachelor's degree program:
- Evidence-based practice and ethics in physical therapy
- Advanced musculoskeletal system interventions
- Concepts of leadership
- Advanced neurological and cardiopulmonary interventions
- Outcome measures and reporting for the PTA
Additionally, students may be required to complete a capstone project or work experience as a part of the course.
What can I do after earning a bachelor's degree?
An online bachelor's degree in physical therapy might enable you to work in larger institutions or enable you to work in entry-level roles in healthcare management. Some potential jobs are:
- Certified physical therapist assistant
- Physical therapist assistant and nurse aide
- Physical therapy technician
- Staff physical therapy assistant
Online Master's Degree Programs in Physical Therapy
The minimum educational requirement to work as a physical therapist in the United States is a CAPTE accredited Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) and Master of Science in Physical Therapy (MSPT) degrees are no longer offered to new students. Please see the doctoral degrees section to learn about professional physical therapist education programs.
Online Doctoral Degree Programs in Physical Therapy
Doctoral degree programs in physical therapy cater to two different types of candidates - those who are currently practicing physiotherapists with a master's degree in physical therapy and individuals who are making their first forays into the world of physical therapy. According to the APTA, new students interested in a professional (entry-level) physical therapist program are required to enroll in the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program.
Practicing physical therapists who would like to achieve a doctoral degree can enroll in Transitional Doctor of Physical Therapy (TDPT) so as to be line with APTA's vision 2020.
What can I expect to learn in an online transitional doctoral degree program?
As TDPTs are meant for licensed physical therapists with plenty of practical experience under their belts, you may be able to find transitional doctoral degree programs in a completely online format.
Typical duration: One to three years of part-time study
General prerequisites: Proof of graduation (official transcript) from a CAPTE accredited physical therapist degree program, current license to practice physical therapy in the United States; may also need professional recommendations
Transitional physical therapy doctoral degree programs are designed to cover any educational gaps that might have arisen through a master's degree in order to align with APTA's vision 2020. Typical coursework may include:
- Medical screening
- Health promotions
- Diagnostic imaging
- Orthopedic physical therapy
Additionally you may be required to complete a capstone course involving comprehensive case reports.
Possible electives: Evidence-based exercise for the older adult, educational strategies for effective healthcare delivery, neurologic physical therapy
What can I expect to learn in an online doctoral degree program?
Online doctoral degree programs are designed for individuals who want to work as licensed physical therapists. As physical therapists require clinical experience, these courses are normally in the form of hybrid courses whereby you can complete all the theoretical courses online but are required to be available for clinical practice at your school or at an accepted center.
Typical duration: Three years of full-time study; new students enrolling in a professional, entry-level DPT program may take 6 to 7 years
General prerequisites: Bachelor's degree
Typical coursework: According to the APTA, most of the DPT curriculum is made up of classroom (didactic) and lab study. The rest is devoted to clinical education that can help students gain experience in areas such as acute care and orthopedic care.
You may typically find your courses include topics like:
- Musculoskeletal anatomy
- Basics of patient management
- Life span motor control
- Mechanics of gait
- Principles of disease
- Differential diagnosis in physical therapy
Additionally, you can be required to complete supervised clinical rotations at a nearby facility and may have to complete an internship as a part of your course.
What can I do after earning a doctor's degree?
You can work as a licensed physical therapist after you have graduated from a DPT program. Students at this level can pursue specializations in the field through certifications.
Programs offering the DPT degree program need to be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Physical Therapy Assistant programs are also accredited by CAPTE. CAPTE does not accredit physical therapy aide programs.
Certifications and Licensures
PTs may hold certifications from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties in one or more of nine specialties:
- Cardiovascular & Pulmonary
- Clinical Electrophysiology
- Women's Health
Physical therapists and PTAs may also need to undergo criminal background checks and continuing education courses in order to keep their licenses. PTAs may also earn certifications in first aid skills like CPR or basic life support.
Each state sets its own licensing or registration requirements, but generally physical therapists and physical therapists assistants are required to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination. There are no licensing requirements for physical therapy aides according to state law.