One advantage to a career as a physical therapist assistant (PTA) is the wide variety of clinical settings you can work in. While some of your core job duties will remain the same from setting to setting, the types of patients a PTA sees and their clinical objectives could change.
Those who need physical therapy services can require differing levels of care that can impact a PTA’s job responsibilities both indirectly and directly. For instance, longer-term patients like those you might find in an inpatient nursing facility or hospital setting may be dealing with chronic issues and are trying to maximize functioning. Conversely, a student-athlete who suffered an injury may only need acute outpatient rehabilitation services and a couple of months of care. Understanding the difference in these environments can be important for considering where you think you’d most enjoy working as a PTA.
If you’re wondering where physical therapy assistants work, here are some common workplaces, including descriptions of what their roles in those settings are:
A private outpatient physical therapist’s office
One primary role a PTA experiences over the course of their career is that of support to physical therapists, many of whom work in facilities that exclusively provide rehabilitative physical therapy services. These physical therapists can be members of their own private practice, a branded franchise physical therapy branch, or a location under an umbrella of a broader healthcare system.
The range of services offered at a physical therapy office can change based on a variety of factors. However, there are some constants: nearly any patient coming into the conventional physical therapy environment will have been referred by a doctor due to an acute or chronic injury.
Outpatient environments tend to be fast-paced and of a higher intensity than inpatient services. There are several reasons for this. Outpatient patients tend to have a higher level of functioning and may not have missed work or school due to injury. That means their therapy session is only one of several responsibilities they have on any given day. In outpatient facilities, a range of patients with a variety of injuries means variety in clinical cases and techniques, helping keep things new and interesting. But it can also mean PTAs are required to do more equipment set up for a higher volume of patients, especially in smaller or private therapy clinics.
In an inpatient hospital or extended care facility
PTAs often work where the environment can be different from a conventional outpatient private office. Services received here are called habilitative, rather than rehabilitative, and aim to provide long-term residents with functionality, strength, and mobility as they age. Patients in these settings can also receive rehabilitative services whether they are recovering from a medical procedure or have suffered a disabling event like a fall.
These environments are often attractive to PTAs who want a slower-paced work environment than what is often found at outpatient clinics. Inpatient work environments can also be less varied even as treatment is less physically intense for both the PTA and the patient. PTAs in these settings often see the same patients on a daily basis, developing a relationship while working closely with them and monitoring their progress. This reduced job intensity and increased familiarity can mean more autonomy for the PTA, with a single PT supervising a higher number of PTAs.
An outpatient facility at a doctor’s office or hospital
In order to provide patients comprehensive care, some physicians, such as those in primary care, orthopedics, and geriatrics, may provide access to physical therapy services directly or within a broader healthcare system.
An advantage to this setup is that the patient can benefit from access to specialized testing and treatment technologies that can be on-site at a specialist’s clinic. In this environment, PTAs can benefit from close communication with practitioners at all levels of a patient’s care and be involved in their treatment planning.
Home healthcare services
PTAs working in home healthcare settings may work in a variety of residential environments. You may work with patients directly in their personal homes, group living facilities, or certain types of continuing care homes. This is a setting where PTAs often have a great deal of independence where they become the primary point of contact for both a patient’s physical therapy and general health needs like nutrition.
The types of patients PTAs serve in home health are often dealing with chronic health issues or are trying to maintain activity and mobility as they age. Many are unable to leave their homes and as a PTA you are their access to a higher quality of life. Supervising PTs will still provide general guidance and supervision to PTAs but how to structure and deliver treatment is often up to the PTA. You may help set up assistive devices in their homes and show patients how to use them, ensuring that as their condition improves, they are still able to live independently.
Schools, sports facilities, and fitness centers
Physical therapy can be about improving baseline performance, as well as regaining strength and function after injury. PTAs interested in helping athletes improve physical performance or come back stronger from injury may choose to work in sports and other performance-related environments.
PTAs in academic environments like colleges may be hired to work directly with student-athletes, treating those who play a specific sport or all of a school’s sports teams. They may also work at high schools where sports are a focus. A select few are hired in elite sports environments like professional teams, national teams, and other high-level organizations.
Those interested in working as a sports PTA may want to seek an education or practicum experience related to sports or performance enhancement.