You don’t necessarily have to be a physical therapist (PT) to work in the physical therapy industry. In fact, you can make a huge difference in patients’ lives by serving in a supporting role—especially as a therapist assistant or therapy technician. For the uninitiated, those might sound like the same job with different names. Well, don’t let their names fool you; when it comes to a physical therapist assistant vs. physical therapy tech, the roles are actually very different from one another. Here’s the difference between a physical therapist assistant and a physical therapy tech.
The Role of a Physical Therapist Assistant
Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) generally assist in the treatment of all patients and can work in a variety of settings—from hospitals to fitness facilities. An important distinction to make here is that PTAs have taken a board examination and are licensed in the state they practice. They practice under the direction and supervision of a physical therapist, and are responsible for tasks like:
- Collecting patient data (e.g., goniometric measurements and manual muscle test results);
- Providing some treatments (e.g., electrotherapeutic and mechanical modalities, gait and transfer training, and therapeutic exercise); and
- Educating patients and caregivers about prescribed home exercise programs.
If you’re looking for a more technical take on a PTA’s duties, the APTA states that “PTAs implement selected components of patient/client interventions (treatment), obtain data related to the interventions provided, and make modifications in selected interventions either to progress the patient/client as directed by the physical therapist or to ensure patient/client safety and comfort.”
As you can probably tell, PTs and PTAs may (and often do) have some job-duty overlap.
The Role of a Physical Therapy Tech (a.k.a., Therapy Aide)
Like physical therapist assistants, therapy technicians can work in a variety of settings—from hospitals to fitness facilities—but technicians don’t provide treatment. Instead, they help keep the clinic running like a well-oiled machine by cleaning equipment, preparing treatment areas, and assisting patients in moving from room to room or station to station. Additionally, those in this role can assist with clerical duties and paperwork—helping organizations in many different therapy settings chug along each day with minimal hold-ups.
Here’s the APTA’s official definition of a tech’s role in a clinic: “Physical therapy aides are any support personnel who perform designated tasks related to the operation of the physical therapy service. Tasks are activities that do not require the clinical decision-making of the physical therapist or the clinical problem-solving of the physical therapist assistant.”
There are vastly different job training and education requirements when it comes to a physical therapist assistant vs. physical therapy tech. Because PTAs help PTs provide treatment—and often do some on-the-spot clinical problem-solving—their education requirements are more rigorous than technicians’. Here’s a side-by-side comparison, as adapted from this resource and the APTA:
As laid out in this article from the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), physical therapy assistants are required to “graduate from a Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education-accredited physical therapist assistant education program and pass a state-administered national exam to obtain licensure or certification required in most states.” Technicians, on the other hand, are required to have a high school diploma, although some may also complete additional certification training courses.
Physical Therapist Assistant Salary
It’s important to remember that salary averages vary depending on the state and setting. That said, PTAs nationally earn an average annual salary of $64,519 according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall, the highest-paying state is California (where PTAs rake in an average salary of $78,920), and the highest-paying settings are home healthcare services and continuing care retirement communities, and assisted living facilities for the elderly (where PTAs earn an average salary of $78,360 and $73,180).
Physical Therapy Technician Salary
As with PTA salary, the average PT technician salary varies by location and setting—but, on average, physical therapy techs bring in $33,210 per year. Overall, the highest-paying state is Alaska (where PT technicians earn an average salary of $45,950), and the two highest-paying settings are home healthcare services and local government (where PT technicians earn average salaries of $52,210 and $50,830, respectively). It’s worth noting that PT technician positions in those industries are extremely scarce.
Now that we’ve covered the job requirements, duties, and salary averages for a physical therapist assistant vs. physical therapy tech, let’s go over the functions that neither PTAs nor techs can perform. According to the APTA, whether you’re a PTA or a tech, you may not:
- Interpret patient referrals.
- Provide an initial exam, evaluation, diagnosis, or prognosis.
- Make or modify a plan of care.
- Determine when you provide patient care.
- Perform a re-exam.
- Establish a discharge plan and complete supporting documentation.
- Oversee all documentation for services rendered.
Now, some state practice acts are more stringent than Medicare, while others grant PTAs a little more autonomy. That’s why it’s so important to be familiar with your state’s practice act; you must always adhere to the strictest regulation that applies to you. To learn more about the ins and outs of PTA supervision requirements, check out this blog post.
Even though the two roles are different, they do share many similarities. Techs and assistants can work in the same settings—including outpatient clinics, hospitals, gyms, and other facilities. Both roles interact with patients, so strong people skills are a must. Assistants and technicians must be:
- detail-oriented, and
Furthermore, both roles typically require working with confidential patient records. That means candidates must be committed to protecting patient privacy and adhering to all HIPAA regulations.
Effective Use of Physical Therapist Assistants
Therapist assistants don’t need to work in tandem with a physical therapist—in fact, it may be better that they don’t (unless absolutely necessary). Practices should instead leverage PTAs and their clinical skills (as dictated by your state practice act) as a tool to free up PTs—allowing therapists to take on heavier patient loads. When Dr. Heidi Jannenga, PT, DPT, ATC, was a clinic director, she made sure that assistants never hung around, waiting to pick up a therapist’s slack; they followed their own patient treatment schedule and worked with purpose each day. This also freed up time on the therapists’ schedules for more evaluations—and even marketing time.
So, when PTs want to effectively leverage the skills of their PTA colleagues, they should consider passing along the services that are within a PTA’s scope of practice (like gait training or modalities), so the therapists can focus on providing the services that only they can provide (like evaluations or mobilizations). Just know that with this sort of division of labor, defensible documentation is key: "Layer on your in-clinic rules to ensure that every PTA and PT tech is following your state practice act at all times—and document who has provided input to (and has put their hands on) the patient," Jannenga advises.
Effective Use of Physical Therapy Technicians
Like with PTAs, clinics never want to see their therapy techs unoccupied, and—again, like PTAs—your goal is to offload tasks to your techs that would otherwise take up a PT’s or PTA’s time. Preparing hot and cold packs, sanitizing equipment, and assisting with patient intake are all tasks that a technician can own. Techs can also assist with marketing efforts or liaise with physician offices and try to generate healthy referral relationships. Really, the sky’s the limit. If your clinic has a nonclinical need, a tech might be able to fill it.
It’s worth noting that some states do allow for PT techs to supervise patients performing exercises or assisting with other treatment interventions, so be sure to check your state’s practice act pertaining to PT tech usage as well as any specific requirements of third-party insurance carriers. CMS does not view exercise supervised by a PT tech as skilled or reimbursable care.
Even though physical therapy techs and physical therapist assistants serve separate and distinct roles, both roles are valuable assets in every rehab therapy organization. So if you’re considering physical therapist assistant vs. physical therapy tech as a possible career option, know that whichever you choose, you’re making a positive difference in patients’ lives.