Physical Therapist Assistant vs. Physical Therapy Aide: Breaking Down the Difference

illustration of a physical therapy assistant helping a patient with exercises and an aide cleaning a therapy room

When you think about your future career, you’ve never pictured yourself working at a desk in an office somewhere. You need a job that’s about helping people—and that preferably lets you stay active while at work, too!

The physical therapy (PT) field checks all the boxes above, but you aren’t quite sure which PT position is the right fit for you. When it comes to comparing the roles of a physical therapist assistant versus a physical therapy aide, it can be hard to know the difference based on the job title alone. Is one more involved with the day-to-day interactions with patients? Which pays more? How do you become one?

While these physical therapy jobs may sound similar, their daily job duties and the education required to get started are quite different. It’s important to understand the basics of both roles before you choose which one you’d like to pursue. We rounded up an overview of these PT careers so you can make the best decision for your future career path!

What does a physical therapist assistant do?

Physical therapist assistants, sometimes called PTAs, work under the supervision of physical therapists to help patients progress through their care plan. They use physical therapy techniques such as stretching, exercises, special equipment and massage to directly help patients regain mobility.

PTAs work closely with physical therapists, making sure they stick to each patient’s care plan and report health updates to the physical therapist. “A PTA can perform manual therapy on patients, as well as oversee exercises as long as they are in contact with a PT and have a PT overseeing the patient's case,” says Dr. Elizabeth Alice Kerby, physical therapist at the Kerby Method.

Most PTAs work in hospitals or clinics that specialize in physical therapy. Some also work in assisted living facilities or visit patients in their homes as part of a home healthcare service. Regardless of their exact work setting, physical therapist assistants enjoy an active career that keeps them on their feet for much of the day.

What does a physical therapy aide do?

Like PTAs, physical therapy aides work in hospitals or physical therapy clinics as part of the team that helps PTs offer high-quality care to their patients. However, their job duties focus more on keeping the clinic organized and maintained rather than direct patient care.

Laws differ from state to state, but PT aides generally handle basic clerical duties like scheduling, cleaning and setting up equipment and helping patients get to and from their therapy areas. “A PT aide is unable to perform manual skills or other forms of patient care,” Dr. Kerby says.

PT aides may not be involved in as much direct patient care as PTAs, but they’re still an essential part of this healthcare field. Their work ensures that the physical therapy environment is clean and ready for incoming patients and that PTs have everything they need to carry out a patient’s care plan.

Physical therapist assistant vs. physical therapy aide: Salary and job outlook

We understand that salary potential is an important factor to consider while deciding between two job titles. In this case, physical therapist assistants do have a bit of an edge. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a median annual salary of $58,790 for PTAs in 2019.1 However, physical therapy aides can still earn a respectable salary with the BLS reporting PT aides earning a 2019 median annual salary of $27,000.1

Salaries for these job titles vary depending on the work setting. Employees in both positions earned the most when they worked at skilled nursing care facilities. This work environment earned PTAs a median annual salary of $66,840 and physical therapy aides $34,490.1 

Both careers also offer positive job outlook projections, largely thanks to the Baby Boomer generation approaching an age that comes with mobility-related health issues. Physical therapist assistant jobs are projected to grow by 33 percent 2019 to 2029, and the demand for physical therapy aides is projected to increase by 21 percent over the same timeframe.1 This is much faster than the projected national average across all occupations!

Physical therapist assistant vs. physical therapy aide: Education requirements

Just as these job titles have different job duties, they also require different levels of education. Aspiring physical therapy aides can get started with a high school diploma and some on-the-job training, making it an accessible career for anyone wanting to get their foot in the door of this healthcare field.

PTAs, on the other hand, require a bit more formal education before they’re ready to start work. All states require physical therapist assistants to have an Associate’s degree from an accredited program. This gives them “a deeper knowledge of anatomy, physiology and exercise science,” Dr. Kerby says.

This Associate’s degree gives students more than just “book” knowledge. It also provides them with hands-on clinical experience so they’re fully prepared for their first day working in the field. Although many Associate’s degrees take two years to complete, the Rasmussen University Physical Therapist Assistant Associate’s degree program can be completed in as few as 18 months.2

After graduating with your Associate’s degree in hand, becoming licensed is the last step to becoming a PTA. All states require licensure, which involves passing the National Physical Therapy Exam for physical therapist assistants. Some continuing education may also be required to keep your license up to date and valid.

Physical therapist assistant vs. physical therapy aide: Which career is right for you?

There are lots of factors to weigh as you evaluate these physical therapy career options. We can’t tell you which career is right for you, but we can offer some parting advice.

If it’s a priority to get your new career off the ground immediately, physical therapy aide might be the right choice for you. Dr. Kerby also notes that this is a path to consider for someone who enjoys organizing, cleaning and clerical tasks.

But if you don’t mind some extra schooling and are interested in having more autonomy in working with patients, PTA might be the better job title for you. “For someone who is interested in more direct patient care, the role of a PTA will be a more satisfying fit,” Dr. Kerby says.

Still feeling stuck? Dr. Kerby suggests getting started in the field as a physical therapy aide while working on your Associate’s degree to become a PTA. “This is a great way to gain an introduction to the field and make connections.”

Which physical therapy career will you choose?

When it comes to physical therapist assistants versus physical therapy aides, there are a lot more differences than you may have expected! Now you have all the information you need to determine which career is right for you.

If the direct patient care of a PTA career sounds right up your alley, get started today by learning more about the Rasmussen University Physical Therapist Assistant Associate’s degree program!

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics [data accessed January 2021] www.bls.gov. Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries, and employment conditions in your area may vary.

2Completion time is dependent on number of courses completed each term and number of transfer credits accepted.

About the author

Ashley Brooks

Ashley is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen University. She believes in the power of words and knowledge and enjoys using both to encourage others on their learning journeys

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