A Day in the Life of a Physical Therapist Assistant
Typical PTA Schedules, Duties, and Responsibilities
Physical therapist assistants are the lifeblood of many physical therapy clinics. Almost everyone who attends physical therapy will work with a PTA—in some cases for much more time than they’ll spend with their physical therapist. Physical therapist assistants’ attention to detail and commitment to patient care is essential in treating people’s injuries, illnesses, and disabilities.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s really like to work as a physical therapist assistant, you’re in the right place. Naturally, there are different types of PTA jobs, and some things may change between facilities and patient populations. Still, a day in the life of a physical therapist assistant comes with certain tasks, duties, and challenges, regardless of your workplace.
Want to learn more about different PTA careers? Explore our list of the highest-paying jobs for physical therapist assistants.
Physical Therapist Assistant Job Description
Physical therapist assistants work under the supervision of licensed physical therapists to help people recover from injuries and illnesses (or learn to manage chronic conditions). PTAs prepare patients for therapy, measure their progress, and document important details so the therapist can use their time with each patient as efficiently as possible. PTAs also guide patients through mobility and strengthening exercises as prescribed by their supervising physical therapist.
While physical therapist assistants have plenty of autonomy at work, there are limits to their scope of practice. PTAs do not directly diagnose patients or create rehabilitation plans—those are tasks for a physical therapist. However, physical therapist assistants are essential in preparing patients for treatment and executing their treatment plans. They also perform many other support tasks that keep a PT clinic running smoothly.
PTAs are trained healthcare professionals, and most states require earning an associate’s degree from an accredited physical therapist assistant program. You’ll also need to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) for physical therapist assistants before you can become licensed in any state.
Clocking In as a Physical Therapist Assistant
Showing up a few minutes early for your shift is a good policy for physical therapist assistants. PT clinics are often stacked up with a steady flow of patients throughout the day, so staying on schedule is important to avoid a compounding backlog of people in the waiting room.
Most healthcare facilities have security systems to protect both patients and staff, though navigating them is often as simple as using an RFID badge. The actual process of clocking in varies by facility—some places will use a central computer, while others utilize handy smartphone apps to log your time and track your schedule.
Ideally, you’ll have a few minutes before your first patient arrives to review the schedule for the day, brush up on each patient’s condition and progress, and meet with your supervising physical therapist to discuss any noteworthy cases or pressing concerns for the day.
Typical Schedules for Physical Therapist Assistants
Physical therapy is non-emergency care, which means physical therapist assistants usually work somewhat standard business hours. Physical therapy clinics are typically open between 8:00am and 6:00pm, give or take an hour or two.
Physical therapist assistants who work in hospitals or long-term care facilities are sometimes the exception to this rule, as a higher volume of patients can cause therapy facilities to be open longer hours. Some outpatient facilities will also be open during evenings or weekends to accommodate patients who have a tough time scheduling appointments during the workday.
Most PTAs work full-time, usually in 8- to 9-hour shifts. At some facilities, physical therapist assistants are scheduled for four 10+ hour shifts per week, with three days off. It’s also possible to find part-time work as a physical therapist assistant at some facilities.
If you’re working full-day shifts, you should have at least a 30-minute lunch break. In reality, a day in the life of a PTA can get hectic when you have a full patient load, so you might occasionally need to scarf down something quickly in between appointments.
Daily Duties and Responsibilities of a Physical Therapist Assistant
What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant Do on a Daily Basis?
Physical therapist assistants perform several important duties within a physical therapy clinic. Most PTAs spend the majority of their time working with patients, but they can also support physical therapists with clerical and administrative tasks when needed. Let’s take a look at a few of their primary roles and responsibilities.
To loosen up their bodies and prepare for more focused treatments, most physical therapy patients complete a light warm-up before the main part of their physical therapy session. Physical therapist assistants usually guide patients through this part of their session, often while talking with the patient about their progress.
Evaluation & Documentation
In addition to asking patients about how they’re feeling, PTAs often evaluate a patient’s strength or mobility to measure any progress or regression since their last appointment. Accurate record-keeping is an important part of this process, as it helps physical therapists determine how well their treatment plan is working over time.
PTAs document patients’ pain levels, concerns, and range of motion so the supervising PT can answer questions or make adjustments to the treatment plan as necessary. Thorough documentation also helps insurance companies and healthcare organizations provide better patient care by gathering objective data about healthcare outcomes.
Besides preparing patients to meet with a physical therapist, PTAs are just as important in carrying out each patient’s treatment plan. They’ll regularly provide manual therapy like stretching or massage to restore range of motion and promote healing, and use heat and cold therapy to loosen stiff areas or minimize inflammation.
Physical therapist assistants regularly demonstrate exercises to patients, and provide supervision to ensure patients perform them safely and correctly. PTAs also help some patients learn how to use adaptive equipment or accomplish daily tasks in spite of physical limitations.
Even after a severe injury or major surgery, most people will only get a few hours of formal physical therapy per month. To get the most out of their recovery, patients must continue their exercises and treatments at home, and physical therapist assistants are an important part of that.
In collaboration with their supervising physical therapist, PTAs make sure patients understand the exercise and recovery routines they should be completing at home, and any equipment they need to continue their healing.
Clerical & Support Tasks
Depending on the size and scale of the physical therapy practice for which they work, some PTAs may also take on some non-therapeutic support duties like washing linens, cleaning and organizing equipment, or scheduling appointments.
Clocking Out as a Physical Therapist Assistant
At the end of the day, physical therapist assistants will need to double-check they’ve completed all their record-keeping tasks and perform any other assigned duties. These could include putting away exercise equipment, cleaning specialty treatment devices, or restocking clinical supplies. It’s a lot like the closing shift at many jobs—the following day goes a lot more smoothly if you spend a few minutes preparing in advance the night before!
The Challenges of Working as a Physical Therapist Assistant
A career as a physical therapist assistant is an incredibly rewarding way to earn a living, as your efforts will make a difference in the lives of countless patients. However, becoming a PTA isn’t without its challenges. These are some of the most common challenges physical therapist assistants face at work:
An average day for a physical therapist assistant involves a lot of physical activity. PTAs spend long periods of time on their feet, and do lots of bending, squatting, and lifting while treating patients or helping them perform exercises. Physical fitness and proper form are important for PTAs to protect themselves from overuse or acute injuries while on the job.
While it’s rewarding to spend your career helping others recover, it can also be draining to work with people who may be in chronic pain or poor mental health because of their physical condition. Not every patient’s story has a storybook ending, and PTAs must do the best they can to improve people’s quality of life while recognizing some conditions can’t always be cured.
Most of the patients you’ll work with as a PTA will be grateful for your help as they go through their healing journey. Still, most physical therapist assistants will encounter a few challenging patients throughout their careers. It could be somebody who feels unsatisfied with their overall care experience, or simply somebody who lashes out because they’re in pain.
Whatever the situation, PTAs must be prepared to handle themselves calmly and professionally, and provide empathetic and compassionate care—even to difficult patients. Of course, they must also be ready to notify their PT and/or security staff if a patient is ever behaving dangerously or inappropriately.
Time Management Challenges
Busy therapy facilities can create heavy workloads for physical therapist assistants. While it’s great to have job security, administrative pressure for greater patient volumes can force PTAs to work with multiple patients at once, leaving less time to care for each individual. Giving each patient the care they deserve while also completing all the necessary paperwork and other tasks is an ongoing challenge for many PTAs.
Self-Care & Coping Skills for Physical Therapist Assistants
Because working as a physical therapist assistant can be physically and emotionally challenging, it’s important for PTAs to take good care of themselves outside of work. Healthy lifestyle habits and coping mechanisms are critical in avoiding the burnout and compassion fatigue that plague many healthcare professionals.
Besides good habits like regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, and getting plenty of high-quality sleep, physical therapist assistants can also benefit from practicing mindfulness or meditation. Mental resilience is important for anyone, but especially for healthcare workers who rely on being present and compassionate to perform their best at work.
It’s also a big help to have supportive relationships with your colleagues, so you can ask other people for help when you encounter a difficult situation. And while most PTAs get into the field because they love serving others, maintaining work-life balance is still essential for long-term career sustainability. Finding ways to decompress and de-stress outside work is a must for anyone who devotes their career to helping people heal.
Start Your Physical Therapist Assistant Career at Provo College
Thanks to their combination of therapeutic skills, communication skills, and people skills, physical therapist assistants are a huge part of any successful PT clinic. It’s a rewarding career with a chance to witness heartwarming success stories and help people overcome significant obstacles in life.
The physical therapist assistant program at Provo College is designed to help anyone start a new chapter, thanks to a flexible hybrid program that makes it possible to graduate in less than two years. You’ll learn from experienced instructors and build the foundation for a long and successful career, with opportunities to specialize in different areas that interest you most.
Looking to learn more about becoming a PTA? Check out our detailed guide on how to become a physical therapist assistant.