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A Day in the Life of a Physical Therapist Assistant

Cast of Characters:


Cast of Characters

The Physical Therapist (PT)

Each patient referred for physical therapy is evaluated during the first visit to the Physical Therapy department by a physical therapist (PT).  This is called the Initial Evaluation.  The PT determines the patient's physical therapy problems.  After discussing the goals for physical therapy with the patient, the PT establishes a "Plan of Care".  This Plan of Care outlines the physical therapy interventions (treatments and procedures) that will help the patient to meet his/her goals. A time frame for treatment is set that specifies the frequency of treatment (how many times per week) as well as the duration of treatment (for how many weeks). The PT re-evaluates the patient periodically to determine if the goals are being met and if the Plan of Care needs to be revised.  To learn more about the role of the physical therapist, click here to reach the American Physical Therapy Association's Background Sheet for the PT.  (When you have finished reading about the physical therapist, close the window to return to this page.)

The Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA)

The physical therapist assistant (PTA) is the right hand of the physical therapist (PT) and works under his or her supervision.  PTAs are directly involved in patient treatment.  They carry out the physical therapy interventions as set out in the Plan of Care by the PT. Each PTA is responsible for reporting to the supervising PT on a regular basis about the patient's progress. To learn more about the role of the physical therapist assistant, click here to reach the American Physical Therapy Association's Background Sheet for the PTA.  When you have finished reading about the physical therapist assistant, close the window to return to this page.)

The Patients/Clients

Anyone who has a functional limitation (meaning they are unable to do the things they used to do) may benefit from physical therapy services.   PTAs work with people of all ages, from birth to 100+.  People who take part in physical therapy are usually people who have experienced a change in physical function and health status due to an injury, a disease process or some other cause. PTs and PTAs work with patients who have orthopedic, neurological and medical-surgical disorders.  (To read more about orthopedic or neurological conditions click on the underlined word.)

The Setting

The physical therapist assistant (PTA) can work in a variety of settings. Here in the central Florida area PTAs work in hospitals, outpatient offices, private practices, nursing homes, home health agencies and schools. In most settings (here in Florida) the PT does not have to be physically on site while the PTA is treating patients.  To learn more about the different settings  where PTAs work, click here to reach the American Physical Therapy Association's List of Facilities for the PTA.  (When you have finished reading about where PTAs work, close the window to return to this page.)

The Hours

Physical therapy is generally a day shift job with PTAs usually working 8:00 to 5:00.  Some physical therapy providers offer services to patients/clients during early morning or early evening hours.   (For example, a PTA may work 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. or 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.)  Some settings, such as hospitals and nursing homes, provide weekend physical therapy services also.  In these settings the PTA may be required to work weekends on a rotating schedule.

The Day Begins

The typical physical therapist assistant (PTA) begins his or her morning by reviewing the day's schedule. Once the patients/clients have been evaluated by the physical therapist (PT) they may be assigned to a PTA for daily treatments depending on the needs of the patient. The PTA is then responsible for carrying out the assigned interventions and reporting back to the supervising PT regularly.  In many settings the PT is not on the premises while the PTA is treating patients.  For this reason PTAs need to be able to work independently and responsibly.

Typical Physical Therapy Interventions

There are quite a few treatments and procedures the physical therapist assistant (PTA) needs to be well trained in to help the patient achieve the physical therapy goals set at the time of the Initial Evaluation.  In a typical day the PTA spends a great deal of time standing, walking, and occasionally may be required to assist in tasks that involve heavy lifting.

Some interventions the PTA may provide are described below.  To view a picture, click on the underlined word.  (To return to this list, close the window)

Therapeutic exercise:  PTAs design and carry out exercise programs to build strength, endurance, coordination and balance.

Transfer training:  This skill involves teaching the patient/client to move from one location to another such as moving from the wheelchair to the bed.

Gait training:  Teaching patients/clients to learn how to walk again is one of the areas for which physical therapy is most well known.

Modalities: Physical Therapy is also known for the use of "physical agents".  This involves using heat, water and electricity for therapeutic reasons, such as to relieve pain or to increase freedom of movement.

Wound Care: In some settings PTAs administer whirlpool or irrigation treatments and apply dressings.  These treatments are done for patients/clients who have open wounds, such as burns.  PTAs are trained to protect the patient as well as themselves from harmful bacteria.

Massage: PTAs are also trained in the use of therapeutic massage to relieve pain and increase circulation in injured or sore muscles.

Patient Education: PTAs need to learn a lot about the human body and how it works so they can explain treatments to the patient/client.  For example, PTAs learn about muscles, bones and ligaments in great detail.

Documentation:  As valued members of the health care team, PTAs are required to document key aspects of the treatment in the patient's medical record.  Good writing skills are essential. 

The End of a Busy Day

The day usually goes by quickly in a typical physical therapy department. One of the best parts about working in physical therapy is knowing you have spent the day helping your patients/clients meet their goals. You get a feeling of satisfaction like no other knowing you have truly made a difference in someone's life. 

(Click here to read The Starfish Story)

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