The More You Know: PTAs Offer Advice to Their Younger Selves

November 19th, 2019
By: Content Staff

You never really know what it’s like to do a job until you start doing it, and since every patient, medical situation, and home is unique, that rule probably resonates with physical therapy assistants more than with most American workers. In a recent article in Perspectives, published by the American Physical Therapy Association, PTAs share the lessons they’ve learned on the job and the things they wish they knew before signing on. Here’s what they had to say:

You’re not done learning. The PTAs interviewed by Perspectives said they were surprised how much they still had to learn, and that it can take several years to feel truly competent in the field. In addition, since orthopedic surgery techniques and protocols change, PTAs will have to learn throughout their careers in order to keep up.

The PTAs recommended that young professionals take advantage of opportunities to learn new things and remain confident in their ability to improve with time.

Gain experience in varied settings and roles. In order to have a wide assortment of career options, both short and long term, PTAs shouldn’t allow themselves to get pigeonholed in only one role. One PTA told Perspectives that in school, she wanted to work in rehabilitation, so she did her clinicals at a rehabilitation facility, on a burn unit and in an outpatient clinic, but she wasn’t familiar with home health or skilled-nursing facilities until after she had graduated.

Another PTA recommended that young professionals get a part-time job in a setting that differs from their full-time job so they can keep their whole skill set fresh. As an example, PTAs working full time in an outpatient setting could work one shift a month in an acute-care hospital or rehab facility.

Don’t be afraid to improvise. Several PTAs told Perspectives that they had been taught in school to do things one way, but after being in the field for several months or years, they realized that it was sometimes necessary to try other evidence-based approaches. One PTA found that it was especially important to adapt his communication and treatment strategies to accommodate special-needs populations, including nonverbal children with cognitive delays.

Another PTA said flexibility was important when dealing with seniors in assisted-living facilities, whose cognitive abilities, behavior and physical health may vary from day to day. Working with these patients can be unpredictable, the PTAs said, so young professionals need to be willing to try new approaches when necessary. The PTAs said that good communication with the physical therapist can help them identify how best to modify their approach.

Paperwork is a real bummer. Some PTAs told Perspectives they weren’t prepared for the amount of paperwork they would have to fill out when dealing with regulations surrounding documentation, insurance and billing. They said it was frustrating to have to wait for approval from an insurance company before being able to make clinical progress with a patient. The PTAs said managing their time effectively was essential to staying on top of mounting paperwork.

Use other experts as resources. Since new PTAs have a lot to learn, they should reach out to coworkers and to experts such as occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, special-education teachers, teacher assistants, and parents to gain insights into individual patients and approaches to treatment. This is especially true when working with nonverbal or special-needs students, the PTAs told Perspectives. The people who spend the most time with these students every day typically will have ideas about what will work, and what won’t.

Several PTAs stressed the importance of having a mentor, even if it’s someone from a different practice, and of being involved with professional groups such as APTA.

Your health is most important. Several PTAs told Perspectives that when they first started out, they worked several part-time jobs in additional to a full-time job, or they readily took on extra projects at work, read all the latest research and took all the continuing-education courses that interested them, only to end up burned out after a short time. It’s important to learn on the job, but taking on too much too soon is counterproductive, the PTAs said.

In addition, getting enough sleep and exercise and eating healthily take on increased importance when long workdays leave PTAs tired or emotionally drained.

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