10 Essential Skills Every Physical Therapist Assistant Should Master

Important PTA Skills from Treatment Techniques to Patient Handling

Medical professional assisting an elderly man with physical therapy

For many physical therapist assistants, an accurate job description could span multiple pages. They’re valued employees with a broad range of responsibilities in physical therapy clinics—both patient-facing and behind-the-scenes.

To get results for their patients and achieve success in their careers, PTAs must master a range of essential skills. Let’s learn more about the role of physical therapist assistants and some of the most important things it takes to thrive in the field.

Understanding the Role of a Physical Therapist Assistant

Physical therapist assistants work under the direction of a physical therapist, but they still have lots of on-the-job autonomy, which means they need to be confident in their skills. In many clinics, patients spend more time with PTAs than they do with their physical therapist.

At the start of a physical therapy appointment, PTAs frequently work with patients to evaluate and document their progress. They perform hands-on therapeutic treatments and guide patients through strength and mobility routines. Physical therapist assistants also educate patients and their families on how to continue care at home and sometimes perform other non-therapeutic duties to keep the clinic running smoothly.

Let’s take a closer look at 10 of the most important PTA skills and why they’re so essential for a successful career in physical therapy.

1. Communication and Interpersonal Skills

Making people feel relaxed, comfortable, and heard is every bit as important as your knowledge of different treatment methods. Building trust with your patients and their families is an essential part of physical therapy—especially because many patients may be nervous, in pain, or both.

Communicating calmly, clearly, and with empathy puts patients at ease and helps them understand what to expect during treatment and recovery. Active listening skills are critical for addressing any concerns that come up, whether patients have a setback in symptoms or trouble following their treatment plan.

Polished communication skills are equally critical for collaborating with your supervising physical therapist and other colleagues. Maintaining high ethical and professional standards ensures quality care for patients and a safe and sustainable workplace environment for providers.

2. Patient Assessment and Evaluations

While physical therapists oversee initial evaluations, PTAs in some states can aid them in determining each patient’s current function, discussing their history, and outlining their goals for therapy. During follow-up sessions, it’s common for PTAs to take the lead in gathering patient data and communicating with them about their recent progress.

At the start of an appointment, physical therapist assistants regularly measure vital signs and patients’ pain levels, plus ongoing changes in balance, strength, range of motion, or any other relevant factors in their recovery.

In addition to tracking patients’ progress, PTAs should be watching for abnormalities or regressions that might require changing the treatment plan. Their observational skills can be critical in guiding future decisions from physical therapists and other members of the healthcare team.

3. Treatment Techniques and Modalities

Physical therapist assistants use a wide variety of hands-on treatment techniques and modalities, each of which requires experience to truly master. Some of the most common physical therapy treatments include:

Massage and myofascial release: One of the most important skills for physical therapist assistants, massage can reduce tension and pain, improve circulation, and promote healing in various types of tissues.

Ice and heat: “Hot packs” are common fixtures in physical therapy clinics, as moist heat is useful for relieving tension and promoting circulation. Similarly, ice packs can help decrease pain and control inflammation, and they’re sometimes used during the final phase of a physical therapy session to promote recovery. Both must be used with care to avoid burns or skin damage.

Mobilization: Controlled, assisted motion can help decrease pain and stiffness and improve mobility in many parts of the body. Helping patients passively move their joints requires a careful, smooth touch that takes a little practice to develop.

Guided exercise: Targeted exercises are one of the most effective forms of physical therapy for restoring strength and function. Physical therapist assistants must demonstrate proper form, supervise patients to ensure they exercise safely, and motivate them to continue their exercises at home.

Electrical or ultrasound stimulation: Used to treat a variety of conditions, these modalities can help promote healing, reduce inflammation, and reactivate or retrain muscles. Many different devices exist in these categories, and PTAs should learn general principles and best practices so they can adapt to equipment in different clinics.

Young medical professional with an elderly patient outside

4. Rehabilitation and Rehabilitation Planning

The responsibility of creating or altering a treatment plan ultimately lies with a PTA’s supervising physical therapist. While it’s not within the scope of practice of a physical therapist assistant to change the overall plan of care, PTAs are trained to recognize when a patient may need extra accommodations during a session, and they can make temporary adjustments as necessary.

Physical therapist assistants’ dedication to tracking their patients’ progress is an essential part of rehabilitation planning. By monitoring the long-term effectiveness of each patient’s care plan, they can help their supervising therapist determine whether treatment is working as intended.

Like any healthcare environment, collaboration with patients and other providers is a crucial part of providing excellent care. PTAs must work to understand how their patients are feeling and responding to treatment and be able to communicate effectively with their colleagues whenever the need arises.

5. Knowledge of Anatomy and Physiology

Physical therapist assistants must have a thorough knowledge of the human body to perform their duties effectively. Understanding how we move—and how different health conditions can affect mobility—is a must for providing safe and effective therapy.

PTAs care for patients with a massive variety of medical issues, including:

  • Musculoskeletal conditions
  • Neurological conditions
  • Brain and spinal cord injuries
  • Post-surgical rehabilitation

If you want to learn more about all the health conditions PTAs treat, check out our list of the 20 most common conditions treated by physical therapist assistants.

While PTAs aren’t expected to know everything about every medical condition they encounter, they should be aware of how different diagnoses can affect physical therapy treatment. Understanding the physiology behind treatments and techniques helps physical therapist assistants perform their duties more effectively and empowers them to speak up if something seems out of place.

6. Proper Body Mechanics and Patient Handling

Physical therapy is a hands-on career, and taking the proper precautions can protect both patients and providers. Minimizing fall or injury risk for patients is paramount, especially for vulnerable or less mobile patients. A momentary lapse in focus or judgment can lead to a preventable setback in someone’s recovery, so patient safety is always a top priority.

At the same time, it’s essential to prevent injuries among PTAs who often spend much of the day pushing, lifting, bending, or squatting—sometimes all at the same time. Building good habits and body mechanics is its own skill for physical therapist assistants. Regular exercise and stretching outside of work can mitigate some of the physical demands of the job. It’s just as important to be aware of off-balance lifts and repetitive motions that can lead to overuse injuries.

To avoid accidents and stay healthy at work, physical therapist assistants should familiarize themselves with tools like mechanical lifts and sliding boards for moving patients safely. Take things slowly, be aware of your patients and your own body, and avoid heavy lifts from awkward positions. And when in doubt, always ask for help!

Close up of a tablet that says medical record

7. Documentation and Record-Keeping

Healthcare environments can be complex, and proper documentation of any patient’s treatment and progress is a critical component of their recovery. At larger clinics, it’s common for patients to work with different providers on two consecutive visits. Accurate record-keeping is essential for optimizing a patient’s treatment plan over time, and for ensuring continuity of care between different providers.

Physical therapist assistants who become skilled power-users of electronic health records systems ensure important patient data is recorded accurately and efficiently. This ensures each patient receives the best possible care, and it’s also valuable information for facility management and future health research.

Because health information is highly personal, it’s subject to strict legal and ethical standards. PTAs must maintain good record-keeping habits to avoid potential privacy issues with sensitive patient information. Be vigilant with credentials and passwords, and be careful about what you post on social media—one quick screenshot can be all it takes to cause serious consequences.

8. Infection Control and Safety Protocols

Infections can spread quickly in healthcare environments, and physical therapy clinics are no exception. To help maintain a clean and safe treatment environment, PTAs need to master essential skills like proper hand-washing and the use of personal protective equipment. They must also maintain careful consideration of infection control measures like disinfecting equipment and treatment areas.

Because patient and provider safety is such a serious concern, compliance with relevant standards like OSHA is always top of mind in physical therapy facilities. Physical therapist assistants will be expected to memorize and follow strict guidelines related to infection prevention, safe patient handling, and injury prevention.

9. Teamwork and Collaboration

Modern healthcare teams consist of healthcare professionals from multiple disciplines, and physical therapist assistants should be team players with polished collaboration skills. Because PTAs work so closely with their patients, they can offer valuable insights to their supervising physical therapist or other members of the healthcare team.

In healthcare and any other industry, trust, and communication are the cornerstones of effective collaboration. Physical therapist assistants should serve as advocates for their patients and be comfortable expressing their opinions within the scope of their practice. At the same time, it’s important to have respect for other people’s professional expertise and to trust that other specialists also have the patient’s best interest in mind.

10. Time Management and Organizational Skills

Physical therapist assistants can be responsible for more than one patient at once, which means effective time management and organizational skills are critical for career success. Juggling multiple patients while ensuring everyone gets the individual attention they need for effective therapy takes practice and mental focus.

To stay organized throughout the day, PTAs must be assertive in rotating between different tasks and priorities. Small things like completing documentation or putting away equipment can add up over the course of a dozen or more patients. Doing what you can to stay on schedule and avoid long delays is part of providing a great patient experience—not to mention getting out of work on time!

Latin woman sitting at a desk during a medical lecture

Learn Essential PTA Skills at Provo College

Becoming a great physical therapist assistant requires an ongoing dedication to improving your craft—and continually developing treatment methods means PTAs are never finished learning new skills.

If you’re planning to pursue a career as a physical therapist assistant, it’s important to choose a PTA program that will prepare you to thrive in a modern clinic. The physical therapist assistant program at Provo College is designed to build the knowledge and skills you need to make a difference for patients.

You’ll learn from experienced professionals who can help you polish everything from your therapeutic techniques to your communication methods. And thanks to immersive labs that simulate real therapy environments, you’ll have plenty of chances to perfect your skills before you start working with patients.

Looking to learn more about a career as a PTA? Check out our in-depth guide on how to become a physical therapist assistant, or read up on an average day in the life of a physical therapist assistant.