I recently was a guest lecturer on stroke for a PTA neurology class. I guess it's been a long time since I've been exposed to what goes into becoming a PTA. I was shocked at how much was being crammed into the program. It reminded me of what I had to do when I went to PT school many, many years ago. I shouldn't have been surprised. I work with graduates of that school who are excellent therapists. Prior to the lecture, she told me not to dumb it down in any way. Talk to them like I'm talking to equals.
When I went to PT school, it was a master's-level program crammed into a bachelor's degree. That seems to be what is happening to PTAs now. It's been long enough that I don't clearly remember PT school. What I do remember is feeling overwhelmed by everything I was expected to learn.
There has been talk over the last several years of changing the PTA to a four-year degree. One opposing reason given was lack of enough material to support the change. Another was lack of change in the role of the PTA. I think both need to be revisited. Those statements aren't necessarily true now. There is more than enough material to lengthen the program and it keeps growing. PTAs need to learn the same things PTs are learning if they are going to be responsible for the treatment plans we are creating.
As Vision 2020 comes closer, the role of the PTA is going to change. Just like PTs, PTAs will be expected to do more and have more responsibilities. If practice without referral becomes a reality, PTAs will need to be able to recognize medical problems. Just because something doesn't come up when the PT does the evaluation doesn't mean it isn't there. PTAs are going to need to know what to look out for.
The only way the profession of physical therapy can move forward is if PTAs take on more responsibilities. I felt sorry for those "kids" I spoke to. I gave them a lot of information in a short period of time. I think I would have had difficulty processing it all. What I covered was one-third of their neuro exam. It will also cover TBI and SCI. That's a lot of information.
Today the biggest problem is how to make a change happen. Most, if not all, PTA programs are local in institutions that don't award four-year degrees. Nothing can happen until someone figures out how to get around that. I don't think it's feasible or realistic to expect those programs to simply move to other institutions. Nor will it be easy to change the degree programs of an institution. Some form of partnership with other institutions will be needed. I can't imagine how much work would be involved in something like that.
I hope our profession begins to take a serious look at this. I know several PTA students who chose the PTA over the DPT because of time and expense. Those people will make excellent therapists. Physical therapy should exploit their talents. It took over 20 years to switch from a bachelor's level to master's level for PTs. And that was after we realized we needed to do it. I hope we move a little faster with the PTAs.