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How to Become a PTA with Online Physical Therapy Assistant Programs

physical therapy assistant

As an aging population remains highly mobile, technology advances, and the healthcare system of the U.S. grows, so does the demand for support professionals such as physical therapy assistants.  As in many health professions, no PT office, hospital, or clinic runs on the power of one or two physical therapists.  Physical therapy assistants, or PTAs, work alongside PTs and directly with patients before, throughout, and after treatment.  This level of support is well compensated, has an above average career outlook, and provides greater professional fulfillment than many other careers as PTAs work long-term with patients from problem to solution.

The outstanding demand for PTAs has also created a demand for online physical therapy programs as working adults seek to take a professional step forward into this line of work.  This great-paying career suffers from deceptive advertising by online schools that are not properly accredited. Not all online physical therapy programs meet state licensing standards, and many advertise by using search engine terms that imply their online training programs might meet licensing standards.  To avoid confusion, and to help you find the best online physical therapy programs to become a licensed physical therapy assistant, this article will provide you with what a PTA does, how to become one, and where to look for your physical therapy degree online.

Want to become a physical therapy assistant? GetEducated about physical therapy school accreditation and learn how to become a PTA with an excellent online PTA program.

Working In Physical Therapy Quick Facts

  • Physical therapist assistants work in hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, athletic facilities, and other job sites.
  • PT is a type of allied health that uses therapeutic exercise, hands-on care, and patient education to help people who have medical conditions or injuries limiting their ability to move and function.
  • The job outlook for PTAs is projected at 33% through 2029, a much higher rate of increase among all professions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  This is affected directly by an active, aging baby-boomer population in need of physical therapy for rehabilitation and mobility purposes.
TitlePhysical Therapy Aide / Technician Physical Therapy Assistant (PTA) Physical Therapist
EducationHigh school diploma or equivalency

May earn a certificate to remain competitive

2 year associate’s degree

Credentialing and licensing by state

Doctoral or professional degree

Credentialing and licensing by state

DutiesOffice duties

Cleaning treatment areas, equipment, and linens

Assist patients to and from therapy areas

Patient care before, during, and after therapy

Reporting patient status to PTs

Hands-on patient exercises and treatment 

Use devices and equipment to help patients

Educate patients and families for post-treatment responsibilities

Assess patient’s medical histories

Diagnose through observation

Develop treatment plans

Hands-on patient exercises and treatment

Modify treatment plans and educate patients and families for post-treatment responsibilities

Median Yearly Salary$28,450$59,770$91,010

How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant

There are two steps to become a certified PTA:

  1. Complete a CAPTE-accredited physical therapist assistant education program, such as an associate’s degree 
  2. Take your state-administered national national exam to obtain licensure or certification

Once you have completed these steps to certification, you can take more steps to remain a competitive candidate in the physical therapy field.  APTA, or the American Physical Therapy Association, provides advanced learning opportunities to PTAs seeking proficiencies in areas such as:

  • Pediatrics
  • Wound management
  • Geriatrics
  • Oncology
  • Acute care
  • Orthopedics

What Is A Licensed Physical Therapy Assistant?

Licensed physical therapy assistants provide physical therapy services to people of all ages, addressing medical problems limiting mobility or the ability to perform everyday tasks. PTAs always work under the direct supervision of physical therapists, who are required to have extensive advanced training and certification of their own.

The workday for a PTA may include assisting patients in performing therapeutic exercises, performing massage or ultrasound on patients, providing patient education, and even doing some of the administrative tasks of the facility. PTAs work in many settings: hospitals, long-term care facilities, outpatient clinics, industrial worksites, fitness centers, and schools, just to name a few.

To become a licensed physical therapist assistant, you pursue an accredited associate degree program, pass your state-issued national PTA exam, and then any other requirements of your state.

Licensing or certification is required by only 48 states, not including Colorado or Hawaii.  CO and HI offer state licensing, but you do not have to have a license to become a practicing PTA.   Each state mandates specific educational and exam criteria. Additional requirements may include certification in CPR and first aid. Some states also require a criminal background check. A minimum number of hours of supervised hands-on clinical experience will be required. Check with your state licensing board to see what is required to work as a licensed or certified PTA in your region.

PRO-TIP: The confusion from online physical therapy schools can be from those which offer training to become a physical therapy aide or technician, which has no requirement for anything but a high school diploma or GED. Physical therapy aides and technicians cannot perform hands-on physical therapy and earn less than half of the salary of a licensed or certified PTA.

Online Physical Therapy Degrees: Accreditation and Advanced Training

Physical therapy online degrees exist, but as with any online program, practicing caution can save you from signing up for the wrong program. 

Make sure the online PTA degree you’re considering is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). 

This commission is nationally recognized by the U.S. Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) as the accreditor for licensing degree programs in this field. The CAPTE has accredited over 250 PT programs and over 350 PTA training programs across the United States, including many that offer distance education or evening/weekend schedules.

CAPTE has accredited both entry-level education programs for physical therapist assistants and physical therapists. PTA training is much shorter than training to become a PT, and there are some “bridge” educational programs for PTAs who later decide they would like to become full-fledged PT’s.  Currently, according to CAPTE, only 10% of licensed physical therapy assistants become physical therapists.

In the case of becoming an assistant as opposed to an aide, some for-profit schools use the marketing phrase “physical therapy assistant” only to provide a lesser type of training for physical therapy “aide” positions. “Aide” training is not the same as “assistant” training. “Aide” programs will not, in most cases, meet the accreditation standards of CAPTE or state standards for licensure later as a professional PT or PTA.

PRO-TIP: Be wary of any school that markets itself as offering an online “physical therapy assistant program” only to switch terms later and refer to the program as “aide training.”

Online PTA Programs — Hybrid Options

Most states require physical therapist assistants to complete at least an associate’s degree. Such degree programs include both academic and theoretical study in anatomy, biology, and chemistry as well as hands-on experience in patient care.

Many traditional and online physical therapy programs for assistants require a minimum of 50-150 hours of actual work in assisting the physically challenged prior to taking any courses.

Many community colleges offer physical therapy assistant degrees online, but  require classroom attendance for clinical care and lab courses. These same programs then allow theory courses in areas such as anatomy or English to be completed virtually.

The curriculum for a physical therapy assistant degree online may include topics such as:

  • Anatomy 
  • Physiology
  • Biomechanics
  • Exercise physiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Behavioral sciences
  • Ethics
  • Communication 

Approximately 75% of the curriculum is classroom and laboratory coursework, while 25% is hands-on clinical experience. Students can expect to spend approximately 16 weeks fulfilling their full-time clinical residency requirement.

There currently are no 100% online PTA degrees as the credentials require clinical supervision as well as lab courses that cannot be completed online. Check with your local community or state college for hybrid—part online and part on-campus—physical therapy assistant degrees.

Finding the Right Online Physical Therapy Program

The process of choosing a physical therapy assistant degree online has never been easier. With tools like GetEducated, you can find the right program to fit your schedule and your budget so you can start on a pathway to a well-paid position in a physical therapy setting. To reflect, here are the steps to get you started:

  • Decide whether to pursue a physical therapy assistant associate or bachelor’s degree
  • Find a CAPTE accredited PTA program
  • Compare costs, curricula, schedules, and location between your top choice schools
  • Check to see if you need to take any prerequisite courses or log work hours before applying
  • Factor in the convenience of the school to your location and the requirements for hands-on learning
  • Look at class sizes and licensure pass rates for each school
  • Apply for admission into the physical therapy assistant degree online you have chosen

Becoming a physical therapy assistant is a great career path. The work of helping people to regain movement and function after an illness or accident can be very rewarding. As the population in the US ages, more and more elderly patients will need physical therapy services to stay mobile and active. Physical therapists are in demand in all settings, so whether you want to work with kids, athletes, or factory workers, there are positions out there for newly minted physical therapy assistants. With extraordinarily fair compensation and satisfying work, getting trained for the physical therapy profession can lead to great success in the field.

Advanced Training for Physical Therapy Assistants

While the entry-level educational requirement for physical therapy assistants is still the associate degree, there has been a need for PTAs with more advanced skills. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) has met this need by establishing the Advanced Proficiency Pathways Program (APP) for licensed PTAs to gain skill, knowledge, and experience in working in defined areas of physical practice. Areas of focus include:

  • Cardiovascular & Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women’s Health

For this program, students take some prerequisite courses through the APTA and then work with a mentor physical therapist in the area of practice to complete a minimum of 2,000 hours of clinical experience.

Another way to get more advanced physical therapy assistant training after or instead of an associate’s degree is to enroll in a bachelor’s degree program in physical therapy assisting. Some people may decide to skip the associate physical therapy online degree and go straight into an online physical therapy assistant bachelor’s degree online before they seek to enter the profession. 

Others may complete their associate, then work as a PTA for a year or more before continuing on to the bachelor’s degree. If you think you may be interested in more education beyond the associate physical therapy assistant degree online, make sure that the associate degree program you pursue will allow you to transfer all or most of your credits when you continue your undergraduate education.

Online DPT Programs

Let’s say you are looking beyond a bachelor’s degree, and have decided to pursue a career as a licensed physical therapist.  

There have been changes over the last couple of decades to the occupational requirements for physical therapists. Previously, only a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree was required for PT licensure. The current preferred entry level education is the Doctorate of Physical Therapy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but there are licensed physical therapists out there with just the MPT or BPT.

There is no current requirement for those experienced professionals to gain more education to keep their licensure.  However, many PTs have chosen to update their credentials to a doctoral level of education.  Thus, a new type of professional degree for licensed PT practitioners is now available in an online format. The transitional doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree is geared to practicing clinicians. This accelerated doctorate degree is appropriate for PTs who have already earned a MPT degree.

The DPT is a post-professional clinical doctorate that can be earned through a combination of online coursework, clinical practice in a local setting and very brief campus residencies.  It is usually much quicker than earning a regular DPT, as experienced practitioners already have many of the skills and competencies that are taught to those just entering the field.

Best Physical Therapy Schools for an Online DPT

Accredited online DPT programs will include 80% didactic or classroom learning, along with 20% clinical training. This means that the majority of the degree program can be completed in an online format, which is very convenient for people who want to continue working while they study. All programs, just like PTA degrees, will require mandatory clinical practice experiences. Some programs will also require on-campus visits, usually a few weekends or summer immersion sessions, to add to the hands-on learning.

Three years is the standard completion time for a DPT degree, provided you have all the prerequisites completed. Most online DPT programs are full-time, though some programs may allow students to progress more slowly through the didactic portion to accommodate busy schedules.

The cohort model is the more common format for this and other healthcare degrees. A cohort structure allows students to work together over the course of the program, getting to benefit from peer experiences and team work, leadership and communication. Many online DPT programs will combine some synchronous sessions with asynchronous coursework and lectures.

The doctor of physical therapy degree or a professional degree are now the ideal professional standard.  “However, students who graduate from a CAPTE-accredited program after January 2015 and are eligible to sit for licensure examination will hold the DPT degree.”  This means that PTs with only a bachelor’s or master’s can still be licensed and practicing; the DPT is not officially a requirement.  Many practicing PTs choose to get the DPT degree to stay current with the industry and be competitive.

The median wage for a physical therapist is around $91,000 with variances based on place of employment and years of practice. To earn the highest wages in this growing field as well as the right to call yourself a physical therapist in most states, you’ll need to complete at least an online doctorate in physical therapy and have a record of clinical work as a PT assistant in a licensed medical facility.

Physical Therapy Online Degrees

Whether you are pursuing an associate physical therapy degree online, a bachelor’s in PTA, or online DPT programs, GetEducated is here to point you in the right direction for your education.  Follow any of the links above, or the link below, to find the best physical therapy online degrees that are CAPTE-accredited, designed for the working adult, and up to professional industry standards today!