As of 2010, 287 community colleges nationwide offered physical therapy assistants degrees. These two-year programs concentrate on clinical practice, turning out graduates trained to meet the increasing number of patients in this rapidly expanding field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics ranks physical therapy assistant among the 10 fastest-growing professions. Though growth is driven largely by baby boomers' need for therapeutic services as they reach prime age for heart attacks, strokes, injury and chronic illness, PTAs treat patients of all ages, administering therapies such as exercise, massage, heat and cold, electrotherapy and hydrotherapy.
Competition for a spot in some programs is fierce, and many schools have selective admission based on limited space. Programs may factor grade-point average, references, entrance essays and personal interviews in decision making. Taking prerequisites, shadowing a PTA, volunteering or working as a physical therapy aid, which requires no specialized education, can both make you a more appealing candidate and familiarize you with specific settings and areas of specialization. In many settings PTAs are more hands on, carrying out the treatments that physical therapists prescribe.
Passion for helping others recover from injury, illness and chronic pain so they can get back to daily life is paramount. You'll need strong math and science proficiency plus stellar interpersonal skills. This is a people person's job. PTAs must constantly communicate and coordinate with doctors, nurses, families and patients to ensure the highest level of care. In some clinics, they also handle much of the paperwork and administrative duties such as discharging patients, leaving physical therapists free to evaluate new patients.
Be prepared for a challenge. It typically takes two years of hard work and long hours to successfully log the 75 classroom and clinical credits needed to graduate. First-year students start by spending much of their time in the classroom learning the basics, and gradually, the balance of class to clinical time shifts as the program progresses. The second year is dominated by clinical residencies, where you can focus on many narrow areas of practice.
After graduation and board examinations, physical therapy assistants head off to work in outpatient clinics, hospitals and residential centers. As the length of hospital stays shrinks, more and more PTAs work in outpatient rehab clinics that focus on everything from sports-related injuries to geriatric care. The American Physical Therapy Association also awards advanced proficiency certification in several specialized areas of practice based on advanced education, experience and leadership.
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