Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant

Discover the Differences in Duties, Responsibilities, Certifications, Salary, and Job Outlook

The role of a Medical Assistant (MA) is similar to the role of a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) in that both work directly with patients to treat their condition. But whereas the MA treats and cares for patients and supports physicians, the PTA treats and cares for patients and supports physical therapists.

PTAs have greater responsibility and can perform a more extensive range of treatments than an MA, and all states require that PTAs be licensed. As a result, the role of a PTA requires more education.

Physical Therapist Assistant jobs require an associate’s degree, which typically takes 2 years of study. On the other hand, MA programs typically require only 9 to 12 months. Earning your MA diploma or PTA degree will make you more qualified to continue your education and pursue other medical positions with greater responsibility, including Physical Therapist, Licensed Practical Nurse, Registered Nurse, or Physician Assistant.

If you’re looking to start a career in healthcare, now’s the time to act. The need for qualified healthcare workers has never been greater, and the number of available employment opportunities is also very high. However, with so many career options available, you may be uncertain which role is best for you—given your goals, preferences, lifestyle, and strengths and weaknesses.

This article provides a head-to-head comparison of a Medical Assistant and a Physical Therapist Assistant. You will discover how these healthcare professionals have their own unique job responsibilities, educational requirements, job outlook, and earning potential.

If you’re interested in becoming a Medical Assistant or Physical Therapist Assistant, we hope the information provided here will help you understand your options and find the most rewarding and satisfying healthcare career for your future.

Click here to read our comprehensive guide on how to become a Medical Assistant.

Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant: Definition

What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical Assistants play a vital role in many healthcare teams. Under the supervision of a doctor or nurse, MAs perform clinical duties such as preparing patients for procedures, conducting lab tests, administering medications, drawing blood samples, and other tasks. In addition, MAs often perform administrative duties such as maintaining patient records, bookkeeping, billing, and insurance processing. By taking charge of many routine clinical and clerical duties in a medical practice, MAs give doctors and nurses more time to examine and treat patients.

What is a Physical Therapist Assistant?

A Physical Therapist Assistant helps patients recover from illnesses or injuries or cope with disorders or disabilities. Under a physical therapist’s supervision, the PTA works directly with a patient to assist in their therapy. Common conditions include sports-related injuries such as concussion or tennis elbow and neurological conditions such as stroke or spinal cord injuries.

Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant: Job Description

What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

A Medical Assistant will typically perform a variety of patient care and office administration tasks. Because they handle many of the more routine duties, MAs enable doctors and nurses to dedicate more of their time to examining and treating their patients. Most Medical Assistants work in physician offices, hospitals, outpatient care centers, and medical specialists’ offices.

Medical professional taking a patient's vital signs

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of a Medical Assistant include:

  • Answering telephones and scheduling patient appointments
  • Explaining treatment procedures to patients
  • Filling out insurance forms and coding patient medical information
  • Giving patients injections or medications as directed by a physician or nurse
  • Handling correspondence, billing, and bookkeeping
  • Helping physicians with patient examinations
  • Measuring patient’s vital signs, such as blood pressure and temperature
  • Recording patient history and personal information
  • Updating and filing patient medical records

What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant Do?

A Physical Therapist Assistant works under the supervision of a Physical Therapist to help patients of all ages who are recovering from injuries, illnesses. or disabilities so they can perform daily tasks and activities. Some of the treatments that PTAs are authorized to perform include exercise, massage, gait and balance training, electrical stimulation, and other therapeutic interventions. PTAs are also responsible for obtaining and recording data regarding the patient’s treatments and implementing changes based on that data to improve their recovery journey. PTAs work in various environments, including hospitals, offices, nursing care facilities, in-home healthcare, and athletic organizations.

Some of the day-to-day responsibilities of a Physical Therapist Assistant include:

  • Observing patients before, during, and after therapy, noting the patient’s status and reporting it to a physical therapist
  • Helping patients do specific exercises as part of the plan of care
  • Treating patients using a variety of techniques, such as massage and stretching
  • Using devices and equipment, such as walkers, to help patients
  • Educating patients and family members about what to do after treatment

Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant: Education

Educational Requirements for Medical Assistants

Most MAs earn a diploma or associate degree in medical assisting. MA programs are offered at a variety of colleges, vocational schools, technical schools, and universities. Diploma programs typically require 9 to 12 months to complete, while associate’s degree programs usually take about two years. After graduation, you may want to add another month or two to study for, schedule, and take a certification exam.

If you want to start your healthcare career sooner rather than later, the MA program may be the right educational path. The MA training typically includes instruction in both clinical and administrative duties, giving you a solid background to pursue greater responsibility in nursing or office administration as a career.

If your ultimate goal is to be a Physical Therapist Assistant or Physical Therapist, you will need to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, but you might start by earning your MA diploma and working as an MA to see if you enjoy the healthcare field. Many of the credits from your MA program may apply to your associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and the MA training and experience will provide valuable background for your therapy career.

Although most Medical Assistants are not required to hold a state license or certification to practice in the field, most of today’s employers require or strongly prefer MAs with at least one certification. MAs who perform specific duties (such as phlebotomy or x-rays) or who work in specialized fields (such as podiatry or ophthalmology) may be required to have specific training and certification in their area of specialty. In 2012, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also ruled that only credentialed MAs are allowed to enter the laboratory, radiology, and medical orders into their computerized system.

Click here to read our guide on the best Medical Assistant certifications for your healthcare career.

Physiotherapy professional helping a female client

Educational Requirements for Physical Therapist Assistants

To become a Physical Therapist Assistant, you will need to earn an associate’s degree from an accredited PTA program. The average length of a PTA program is 2 years. Programs usually begin with general education courses then progress into physical therapy courses and clinical education. The subjects studied in a PTA program typically include anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and neuroscience. The PTA curriculum is about 75% classroom instruction and 25% clinical study. If you lead a busy life and can’t attend classes full-time, many programs offer a significant portion of their curriculum online.

The only recognized accreditation for PTA programs is the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education or CAPTE. You will only be allowed to take the licensure exam if your program is CAPTE accredited. For more information about CAPTE accredited PTA programs, visit the CAPTE website.

Before applying for a PTA job, you will also need to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam or NPTE. After graduating from a PTA program, you are eligible to take the exam. Before taking the NPTE, it’s important to be prepared. Retakes of the NPTE are only allowed three times per year and six times total. The minimum passing score for the PTA exam is 600, with scoring ranging from 200 to 800. Official practice exams are available through the Practice Exam & Assessment Tool (PEAT) website. You can also access sample questions for NPTE on the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) website available for free here.

Licensure is required in order to practice as a PTA. Requirements for licensure vary by state, so it’s important to know your state’s individual process. You can find more information at The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy website.

For a closer look at a PTA training program, visit the Physical Therapist Assistant program at Provo College. This comprehensive, associate degree program prepares graduates for a rewarding career as a Physical Therapist Assistant. The program is offered in a hybrid online format and takes as little as 21 months to complete.

Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant: Salary

How Much Do Medical Assistants Make?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary* earned by Medical Assistants in 2020 was around $37,000 or about $18 per hour. MAs who earned salaries in the top 10 percent made more than $50,500 per year.

Highest-Paying States for Medical Assistants

According to the BLS, these are the states where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for medical assistants:

State Hourly Mean Wage Annual Mean Wage
Alaska $22.41 $46,610
Washington $21.97 $45,700
District of Columbia $21.80 $45,340
Massachusetts $20.72 $43,090
Minnesota $20.72 $43,090

Highest-Paying Cities for Medical Assistants

According to the BLS, these are the cities where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for medical assistants:

City Hourly Mean Wage Annual Mean Wage
San Francisco, CA $25.94 $53,960
Vallejo, CA $25.80 $53,660
Santa Rosa, CA $25.25 $52,520
Seattle, WA $23.59 $49,070
San Jose, CA $23.57 $49,020
Sacramento, CA $23.37 $48,600
Olympia, WA $22.85 $47,530
Anchorage, AK $22.02 $45,790
Santa Cruz, CA $21.63 $44,980
Longview, WA $21.53 $44,780

Stethoscope next to 100 dollar bills

How Much Do Physical Therapist Assistants Make?

According to the BLS, the average salary* earned by Physical Therapist Assistants in 2020 was around $59,000 or about $29 per hour. PTAs who earned salaries in the top 10 percent made more than $82,000 per year.

Highest-Paying States for Physical Therapist Assistants

According to the BLS, these are the states where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for Physical Therapist Assistants:

State Average Hourly Pay Annual Salary
California $33.93 $70,570
Connecticut $33.62 $69,940
Texas $33.61 $69,900
New Jersey $33.32 $69,310
Rhode Island $32.36 $67,300

Highest-Paying Cities for Physical Therapist Assistants

According to the BLS, these are the cities where you’re most likely to find the top-paying jobs for Physical Therapist Assistants:

City Average Hourly Pay Average Salary
New York, NY $28.44 $59,140
Chicago, IL $30.22 $62,870
Phoenix, AZ $21.47 $44,660
Miami, FL $28.34 $58,940
Los Angeles, CA $36.54 $76,010
Atlanta, GA $26.17 $54,420
Boston, MA $30.43 $63,290
Philadelphia, PA $28.82 $59,940
Houston, TX $39.19 $81,510
Washington, DC $25.44 $52,910

Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant: Job Outlook

Medical Assistant Job Outlook

According to the BLS, the overall employment of medical assistants is projected to grow 18 percent through 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations (8%).

As the older portion of our population continues to grow, so will the demand for preventive medical services that physicians provide. This will increase the demand for MAs to perform routine administrative and clinical duties, allowing the physicians and nurses to see more patients.

Physical Therapist Assistant Job Outlook

According to the BLS, employment of Physical Therapist Assistants is projected to grow 32 percent from 2020 to 2030, which is significantly faster than the average for all occupations. Demand for PTAs is expected to increase in response to the growing healthcare needs of an aging population, particularly the large baby-boom generation.

As chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity have become more prevalent in recent years, more Physical Therapist Assistants will be needed to manage the effects of these conditions and support patients in maintaining mobility. The BLS also reports that job prospects will be particularly prevalent where the elderly are most often treated, such as in nursing homes and home health.

Hand arranging blocks of wood with healthcare symbols

Head-to-Head Comparison: Medical Office Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant

Comparison Physical Therapist Assistant Medical Assistant
Job Description Helps patients with physical therapy, including exercise, massage, gait and balance training, and other interventions Provides administrative services, basic patient care, and clinical support to doctors and nurses
Average Annual Wage $59,000 in 2020 $37,000 in 2020
Jobs 93,800 720,900
Employment Growth 32% thru 2030 18% thru 2030
Education (Recommended) Associate’s degree (2 years) 9–12 months training

Why Is a Physical Therapist Assistant a Great Alternative Career Path for Medical Assistants?

The role of a Physical Therapist Assistant carries more responsibility than a Medical Assistant and therefore requires more education. So if you’re looking to start your medical career sooner rather than later, an MA program might be your best option because it’s shorter. Working as an MA can also help you decide if a career with more patient contact and interaction is right for you. The MA education and experience is a good way to start your career path to becoming a PTA.

Why Choose Eagle Gate College for Your Medical Assistant Training?

Founded in 1979, Eagle Gate College has provided thousands of graduates with the knowledge and skills they need to pursue a rewarding career in nursing and healthcare. With a curriculum continually updated to meet the needs of healthcare, state-of-the-art labs, and hands-on training from experienced healthcare professionals, we prepare graduates to make a positive impact starting with their first day on the job. Our robust Medical Assisting program combines virtual instruction, hands-on lab exercises, and supervised externship and can be completed in as little as 9 months. In conjunction with Provo College, Eagle Gate College offers a premier healthcare education at five campus locations in Utah and Idaho.