What’s The Difference Between a Physical Therapist and a Physical Therapist Assistant?

You may have been in a physical therapy clinic that had both a physical therapist (PT) and a physical therapist assistant (PTA) helping you with your rehabilitation. You may have wondered, “What exactly is the difference between them?” Here is a brief explanation:

One of the major differences is the level of education. A PT will typically attend four years of undergraduate college and receive a Bachelor degree and then attend three years of graduate school. This allows a PT to earn their Doctoral degree in Physical Therapy, totaling seven years of schooling.

The PTA typically attends a two-year program at an undergraduate college and receives an Associate of Science degree. Even though a PTA program is relatively short, many science topics are covered: math, chemistry, physics, biology, anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, and pathology. Thus, a PTA is very knowledgeable in how the body works, especially how muscles work and how to strengthen them. A PTA program also has a lot of hands-on training, including lab work in school and clinical experiences in various facilities, such as nursing homes, hospitals, private practices and school settings.

The PTA program prepares graduates to help a supervising PT carry out the plan of care for a client. The physical therapist assistant does not do the following: diagnose injuries, perform initial evaluations, create a plan of care (exercise plan) for a patient, or decide when the patient should stop coming to physical therapy. However, in many clinics, the PTA may be the main person involved with instructing patients in their exercises or performing manual techniques (e.g., stretching); the PTA will always keep an open line of communication with the supervising PT to keep him or her updated or to bring any changes to the PT’s attention.

Both PTs and PTAs are compassionate and caring health care providers, who always put patients first and strive to improve people’s lives through therapeutic exercise. Together, they are a highly effective team that can impact society for the better through knowledge, education, hard work and compassion.

For more information about physical therapists and physical therapist assistants, visit www.apta.org or www.op.nysed.gov/prof/pt.