What is the Difference Between a Rehabilitation Aide and a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Rehabilitation aide (RA) and physical therapist assistant (PTA) are two job titles that sound alike, but the roles are very different. Responsibilities may overlap, but the scope of practice differs significantly. Both are rewarding careers, however, for anyone interested in physical therapy and rehabilitation. The Bureau for Labor Statistics’ 15% projected increase in demand for PTAs through 2032 is just icing on the cake.

What Does a Rehabilitation Aide (RA) Do?

Rehabilitation aides provide administrative and logistical support to therapy professionals in inpatient and outpatient settings.

Duties vary but may include:

Equipment Care

Rehabilitation aides set up exercise machines and therapeutic devices for physical and occupational therapy sessions. Easier said than done; it requires preparing, organizing, and maintaining equipment to maximize space and enhance accessibility for patients with impaired mobility.

Safety and Infection Control

Proper sanitation prevents the spread of infection in medical settings. Rehabilitation aides are responsible for maintaining a clean and safe therapy environment for patients and staff.

Patient Transport

Transporting inpatients from their rooms to the gym ensures patient safety while saving valuable therapy time. You will work with the nursing staff to coordinate pickups and drop-offs.

Assisting Therapists

Rehabilitation aides support therapists during treatment sessions by handing over tools or equipment, taking notes, and assisting with other tasks required to facilitate an efficient therapy session.

Administrative Tasks

Administrative tasks are part of every physical therapy treatment. Rehabilitation aides may assist by managing the schedule, responding to patient inquiries, and performing general office tasks.

What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) Do?

PTAs are physical therapy professionals. They work under the direction and supervision of physical therapists to provide comprehensive patient care.

Their responsibilities include:

Patient Assessment

PTAs help physical therapists assess patients by gathering their medical data and performing objective testing, such as balance evaluation and gait analysis.

Treatment Implementation

Under the supervision of a licensed PT, PTAs assist patients with therapeutic exercises to improve their strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance. They also help patients learn to use assistive devices and other adaptive equipment, from canes and walkers to reaching devices and shoe aids, when necessary for rehabilitation.

Pain Management

Pain management is an integral part of physical therapy. PTAs administer a broad range of pain treatments using modalities such as heat, cold, and electrical stimulation.

Patient Monitoring

Physical therapy is progressive by nature. Treatment plans are dynamic, often changing as the patient’s condition improves or declines. PTAs track patients’ progress, reporting any issues to the physical therapist.


PTAs keep detailed treatment records to ensure continuity of care as treatment plans evolve or patients move from inpatient to outpatient settings.

Motivational Support

Physical therapy is hard work. PTAs give patients the emotional support they need to persevere through challenging times by encouraging them to work through discomfort and frustration.

Patient Education

A patient’s recovery is only as good as adherence to their treatment plan. PTAs educate patients on exercises, ergonomics, body mechanics, and safety techniques, empowering them to maximize their physical function while preventing injury.

Professional Collaboration

PTAs are part of the interdisciplinary care team. They communicate regularly with patients, therapists, and other healthcare professionals to keep everyone on the same page.

What Is the Difference Between a Rehabilitation Aide and a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Rehabilitation aides and physical therapist assistants are both valuable healthcare team members, but each role is unique.

The key differences include:

Education Requirements

No formal education is required to be a rehabilitation aide. Still, most people need to gain the experience necessary to qualify for the job. Most employers prefer applicants with a vocational diploma, knowing that the curriculum covers all the relevant skills.

PTAs in all 50 states must complete an accredited training program. A two-year associate degree is required in Florida to qualify for licensure.

Scope of Work

PTAs provide direct care under the direction and supervision of a licensed therapist. State regulatory boards clearly define their scope of practice.

The scope of work for rehabilitation aides is less refined and varies by state. In most, it is a hands-off role with an organizational focus. In others, RAs may provide limited assistance with therapeutic exercises under the direct supervision of a physical therapist or a PTA. Examples include:

  • Assisting with transfers.
  • Offering balance support.
  • Performing passive range of motion exercises.
  • Monitoring patients’ body mechanics during therapy.

Licensing and Certification

RAs are not licensed. Optional certification, however, demonstrates proven skills and offers a competitive edge when applying for jobs.

PTAs must be licensed in Florida to treat patients.

Professional Autonomy

Rehabilitation aides don’t make clinical decisions. Their responsibilities are limited to creating a safe, efficient, and welcoming therapy environment.

PTAs participate in treatment planning. Working closely with therapists, they may modify treatment in real time by altering its intensity or duration based on the patient’s response. It is a collaborative role with a much higher degree of professional independence.

Work Settings

Rehabilitation aides and physical therapist assistants work in similar environments, including hospitals, sports medicine clinics, rehabilitation centers, and outpatient therapy practices. RAs may, however, need additional training to work in long-term care facilities that require direct care staff to be PTAs or nursing assistants.

Unlike RAs, PTAs are also employed by home health agencies because they can work under distance supervision.

Career Development Potential

Rehabilitation aide is an entry-level role. Many RAs become PTAs by gaining experience and building on their education.

PTAs have more advanced roles. But the more experience and education they have, the faster they climb the career ladder. Earning an associate degree prepares them for a bachelor’s program, the next step toward a leadership position. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, about 10% of PTAs eventually earn their doctorate, becoming full-fledged physical therapists.

Final Thoughts

Physical therapy is an exciting and expanding field with flexible career opportunities. Whether you want to explore the field as an RA first or go all-in as a PTA, the best way to get ahead is to start training today.

Rehabilitation Aide Program

The Rehabilitation Aide Diploma provides the basic knowledge and skills required for graduates to work as an Aide supporting Physical Therapists, Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapist Assistants, and Occupational Therapy Assistants in providing rehabilitation services. Florida National University awards a Diploma following the completion of this program. This program also prepares students to apply to the Associate of Science Physical Therapist Assistant program.

Physical Therapist Assistant Program

The Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) program will provide the students with the knowledge and skills necessary to perform as competent, safe, and ethical PTA. The students will learn and apply techniques to improve mobility, relieve pain, and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities in patients in clinical settings. Graduates from this program will be eligible to take their national licensure exam. The school grants an Associate of Science upon completion.

If you are interested in healthcare programs, let Florida National University answer any questions. Contact us today to learn more about our degree and diploma programs.