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How Long Do You Have to Go to School to Be a Physical Therapist's Assistant?

by Susan Sherwood, studioD

Although physical therapists need a doctorate for their profession, physical therapy assistants are finished with school and prepared for the workplace in just two years. A Physical Therapist Assistant associate degree prepares students for a specific job, so the curriculum is very structured with little chance for electives. The timing may vary, but all accredited PTA programs cover the same material.

General Health Sciences

Fundamental science courses are anatomy and physiology. Anatomy describes the structure of the human body, while physiology class examines how the body functions. If these are taught within the PT department, the courses also cover how structure and function are impacted by physical therapy. A pathology course covers various diseases and how they are diagnosed. A PTA program may also require human biology and microbiology. In addition, a course may be devoted to problems of specific groups of clients, such as senior citizens.

Physical Therapy

Students are introduced to the physical therapy field with an overview of the profession, including history, job description, legal and ethical issues and reasons for physical therapy intervention. In therapeutic classes that provide both theory and hands-on experience, students practice basic skills involved in the profession, including handling wheelchairs, transferring patients between settings, gauging vital signs and assessing patients’ conditions. Moving beyond basic patient interactions, advanced courses teach electrotherapy options, such as neuromuscular stimulation, nerve stimulation and biofeedback. Students explore cardiovascular, balancing, stretching and resistance exercises. In addition, students learn specific interventions for certain populations, including athletes, amputees, burn victims and cancer patients.

Social Sciences

Although most classes in the PTA program cover patients' physical health, social science classes also prepare students to meet the psychological and emotional needs of their patients. A general psychology course gives students an overview of how people act and think, while developmental psychology examines behavior at different life stages, such as childhood, adolescence, adulthood and advanced age. Since many PTAs work in large healthcare settings that require employees to interact and cooperate a great deal, some programs also require a course in group dynamics.

Clinical Work

PTA students get a significant amount of hand-on experience in clinical settings. This can happen during fall, spring or summer semesters. Students observe PTAs in action and perform supervised procedures. An accompanying classroom component may teach basic therapeutic techniques such as massage, ultrasound and hydrotherapy. As they gain experience, students are responsible for developing goals, documenting progress and performing procedures. Eventually, students are responsible for a full PTA caseload.

Other Classes

Although a PTA program is very focused on the profession, schools do have some requirements within the liberal arts. A basic English composition course is needed, as well as an introductory college math class, like algebra. Some programs also have minimum fine arts and humanities requirements, such as foreign language, music, philosophy, public speaking or literature.

About the Author

Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.

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