Medical team in a hospital hallway

Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant

Discover the Differences in Responsibilities, Schooling, Requirements, Salary, and Job Outlook

Medical team in a hospital hallway

Once you acquire the education and skills to become a Medical Assistant (MA), you’ll discover many career options and types of facilities where you can work—like hospitals, outpatient centers, and physician’s offices. But you may not realize that becoming an MA can also serve as a springboard into many related careers or additional training programs that can build on your healthcare career.

This article is part of a series that compares the differences between a Medical Assistant and other related careers. Here, the focus is on Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant and the differences in schooling requirements, job outlook, and average salaries for these jobs.

If you’re interested in preparing for a MA career, you can read more in our related article about how to become a Medical Assistant.

Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant: Definition

As we compare Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant, you’ll notice some differences in the amount of required education, certifications, and average salaries (a PTA can earn a higher average salary). However, based on your personal goals and long-term work preferences, you may pursue either of these jobs as the first step in your career. It’s good to learn about the essential characteristics of each job so you can better understand what the right path is for you. Let’s start by defining each role.

What is a Medical Assistant?

The Medical Assistant definition provided by The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that MAs complete administrative and clinical tasks in hospitals, offices of physicians, and other healthcare facilities. Medical Assistants can choose from several certification programs based on their career goals and the state where they plan to work.

What is a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA)?

And what is the Physical Therapist Assistant definition? Like Medical Assistants, PTAs also help provide basic medical care. But they do it under the direction and supervision of physical therapists. PTAs help patients who may be recovering from different types of injuries or illnesses to regain movement and manage pain.

Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant: Job Description and Duties

One of the best ways to understand and compare these two careers is to look at the job duties. This will give you a good idea of what the daily work might entail. Let’s start by looking at Medical Assistant duties.

What Does a Medical Assistant Do?

Doctors and nurses have come to rely on MAs to handle administrative and clinical tasks as part of their day-to-day responsibilities. In this role, your actual tasks will vary by the type of office or facility you work in, but the following is an excellent general overview of job duties.

Medical Assistant Responsibilities

  • Updates the patient’s medical records
  • Administers medicines under the supervision of a physician
  • Assists during medical examinations
  • Prepares medical samples for laboratory testing
  • Manages the schedule of appointments
  • Assists patients with their bills and in filling out forms

What Does a Physical Therapist Assistant do?

Now let’s look at Physical Therapist Assistant duties. PTAs are involved in the direct care of patients, assisting in physical therapy treatments. Following are a few tasks you might regularly perform when working as a PTA.

Physical Therapist Assistant Responsibilities

  • Observes patients before, during, and after therapy
  • Helps patients do specific exercises as part of their care
  • Treats patients using a variety of techniques, such as massage and stretching
  • Uses devices and equipment, such as walkers, to help patients
  • Educates patients and family members about what to do after treatment

Physical Therapist Assistant with an elderly patient

Where Do Medical Assistants Work?

Next, let’s review where MAs typically work. The majority, 57%, work in physicians’ offices. Another 15% work in state, local, and private hospitals. Others work in outpatient care centers (8%) and offices of chiropractors (4%). Work schedules at these offices and facilities are usually full-time, and some require evenings, weekends, and holidays—especially medical facilities that are always open.

Where Do PTAs Work?

The largest employers of PTAs are the offices of physical, occupational, and speech therapists, making up 44% of all jobs. But another 24% work in hospitals (including state, local, and private hospitals). Other work in nursing care facilities (10%), home healthcare services (9%), and offices of physicians (5%). PTAs work full-time shifts, with some working nights and weekends at facilities that offer extended hours.

Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant: Schooling

Our next comparison is the amount of education you need for each of these careers and how long it will take to finish the required training or degree. Here’s what you need to know:

Educational Requirements for Medical Assistants

Most Medical Assistants must not only complete an educational program accredited by an approved regional or national accreditation agency but also become certified. You’ll study multiple areas in your program, such as patient interaction, basic coding and billing, medical office procedures, and electronic medical records. You’ll also learn how to assess and intervene in specific patient situations. You can choose to complete a diploma program or an associate degree program.

For example, Brookline College offers an accelerated Medical Assisting program that provides the necessary training for entry-level positions in a healthcare facility such as a clinic, physician’s office, or urgent care facility. This program offers a healthcare diploma.

Once you graduate, you can choose from five different Medical Assistant certifications. In addition, some employers, or states, require a specific certification to start working in that state. For more information, read our article, The Best Medical Assistant Certification for Your Career.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Medical Assistant?

You can earn a healthcare diploma or complete an associate degree program.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Medical Assistant?

Your program can take anywhere from nine months (for a healthcare diploma) to two years (if you choose the option to obtain an associate degree). The diploma program at Brookline College can be completed in about nine months.

Educational Requirements for Physical Therapist Assistants

To become a Physical Therapist Assistant, you must earn an associate degree from an accredited program. You’ll be required to take anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology classes.

The state you work in will require you to be licensed or certified. Once you graduate from an accredited program, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE®) for PTAs (administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). Additional requirements may vary by state. PTAs can also earn optional certifications in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), basic life support (BLS), and first aid.

Brookline College offers a Physical Therapist Assistant program that will prepare you to gain entry-level employment as a Physical Therapist Assistant.

What Degree Do You Need to Be a Physical Therapist Assistant?

You must earn an associate degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant?

Earning your PTA certificate or diploma usually takes about two years, depending on the program. The accelerated program at Brookline College can be completed in less than two years, in about 90 weeks.

Close up of a woman using a calculator

Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant: Salary

Another important comparison is how much you can make performing these two medical jobs. Take a look below to see the average salaries for MAs and PTAs.

How Much Do Medical Assistants Make?

The BLS reports that the median annual wage for Medical Assistants was $38,000 in May 2021. The lowest-paid 10 percent earned around $29,000, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $48,000.

This chart shows the top paying industries for Medical Assistants:

Industry  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Agencies, brokerages, and other insurance-related activities $ 25.46 $ 52,970
Professional and commercial equipment and supplies merchant wholesalers $ 23.53 $ 48,940
Outpatient care centers $ 21.48 $ 44,680
Electronic Shopping and mail-order houses $ 21.36 $ 44,420
Insurance carriers $ 21.34 $ 44,390

Below are the highest-paying states for Medical Assistants:

State  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Washington $ 22.75 $ 47,320
District of Columbia $ 22.45 $ 46,690
Alaska $ 22.30 $ 46,390
California $ 21.53 $ 44,780
Massachusetts $ 21.25 $ 44,200

Here are the cities with the highest pay for Medical Assistants:

City Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Vallejo, CA $ 28.21 $ 58,670
San Francisco, CA $ 26.41 $ 54,930
San Jose, CA $ 25.90 $ 53,870
Santa Rosa, CA $ 25.74 $ 53,530
Sacramento, CA $ 24.78 $ 51,530
Seattle, WA $ 24.43 $ 50,820
Napa, CA $ 24.27 $ 50,480
Fairbanks, AK $ 22.62 $ 47,060
Portland, OR $ 22.41 $ 46,620
Olympia, WA $ 21.95 $ 45,650

How Much Do Physical Therapist Assistants Make?

The BLS reports that the average annual wage for Physical Therapist Assistants was $61,000 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $37,000, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $80,000.

This chart shows the highest paying industries for PTAs:

Industry  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
Home health care services $ 36.12 $ 75,130
Nursing care facilities $ 33.60 $ 69,890
Continuing care retirement communities $ 33.43 $ 69,530
Management companies $ 31.99 $ 66,540
Outpatient care centers $ 31.63 $ 65,790

Below are the highest-paying states for PTAs:

State  Hourly average wage  Annual average wage
California $ 35.17 $ 73,150
Rhode Island $ 33.98 $ 70,690
New Jersey $ 33.87 $ 70.450
Texas $ 33.40 $ 69,470
Connecticut $ 32.88 $ 68,390

Here are the cities with the highest pay for PTAs.

City Hourly average wage Annual average wage 
San Jose, CA $ 41.33 $ 85,960
San Francisco, CA $ 37.86 $ 78,740
Santa Maria, CA $ 36.73 $ 76,390
Midland, TX $ 36.32 $ 75,550
Salinas, CA $ 36.13 $ 75,150
Los Angeles, CA $ 36.12 $ 75,120
Santa Rosa, CA $ 35.92 $ 74,720
Bakersfield, CA $ 35.69 $ 74,240
Dallas, TX $ 35.16 $ 73,130
Vallejo, CA $ 34.94 $ 72,670

Medical Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant: Job Outlook

Now that you understand the job duties for these two healthcare jobs and the educational requirements and average salaries for each, let’s look at the projected job outlooks.

Young medical receptionist with a patient

Medical Assistant Job Outlook

How are MA careers expected to grow over the next decade? The BLS reports that the employment of Medical Assistants is projected to grow 18% from 2020 to 2030, much faster than the average of all other occupations.

More than 104,000 openings for Medical Assistants are projected each year, on average, over the next decade. These rapidly expanding jobs may be in hospitals, physician offices, and other healthcare facilities. Many of these jobs may require Medical Assistant certifications.

Click here to learn more on how to become a Medical Assistant.

PTA Job Outlook

Employment for PTAs is expected to grow at a much higher rate than most jobs—even higher than MAs—at an astounding 32% from 2020 to 2030.

It’s projected that nearly 24,000 openings for PTAs will become available yearly over the next decade. Some of those jobs may result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or retire.

Click here to learn more on how to become a Physical Therapist Assistant.

Which Job Is Right for You?

If you’re just starting your healthcare career, you may wonder which of these two careers is the best first step. Although you can become a Medical Assistant in less time, don’t let that be the deciding factor. If you’re interested in physical therapy, putting more time into education to become a PTA could be worth it since the average salary* for PTAs is much higher. However, a Medical Assisting background can also be a solid foundation for many other healthcare careers in hospitals or doctors’ offices.

Pursue Your Healthcare Career at Brookline College

Good luck as you choose the right healthcare career and the educational partner to help you prepare to work in your field of choice. Brookline College offers a Medical Assisting program that provides the necessary training for entry-level positions as a Medical Assistant. It also offers a Physical Therapist Assistant program that will prepare you to gain entry-level employment as a PTA and take the NPTE Exam.