The following is a contribution from Elisa Marchand, PTA, PRPC. Elisa is the first PTA to become a Certified Pelvic Rehabilitation Practitioner! Elisa started a Pelvic Floor program with a locally-owned rehab company where she mentored 3 different PT's through the years. In that time, Elisa also taught as an adjunct with the local PTA program. Elisa works at McKenna Physical Therapy in Peoria, IL.
As a physical therapist assistant, the following should cause me to rethink my passion for and practice within women's health PT. "The SOWH is opposed to the teaching of internal pelvic assessment and treatment to all supportive personnel including physical therapist assistants." (Position Statement on Internal Pelvic Floor Assessment and Treatment: Section on Women's Health, APTA; Feb 2014) It should have stopped me from sitting for and becoming the first-ever PTA certified as a PRPC. Fortunately, this is not the case.
I want to be clear from the start; I understand the need for clear boundaries with regards to the scope of practice of PTAs. However, the interpretation of these rules can get quite muddy. In the APTA's "Guide for Conduct of the PTA", the following clarifications are made, including their interpretations:
3C. Physical therapist assistants shall make decisions based upon their level of competence and consistent with patient/client values. Interpretation: To fulfill 3C, the physical therapist assistant must be knowledgeable about his or her legal scope of work as well as level of competence. As a physical therapist assistant gains experience and additional knowledge, there may be areas of physical therapy interventions in which he or she displays advanced skills...To make sound decisions, the physical therapist assistant must be able to self-reflect on his or her current level of competence.
3E. [PTA's] shall provide physical therapy services under the direction and supervision of a physical therapist and shall communicate with the physical therapist when patient/client status requires modifications to the established plan of care. Interpretation: Standard 3E goes beyond simply stating that the physical therapist assistant operates under the supervision of the physical therapist. Although a physical therapist retains responsibility for the patient/client throughout the episode of care, this standard requires the physical therapist assistant to take action by communicating with the supervising physical therapist when changes in the patient/client status indicate that modifications to the plan of care may be needed.
Through the years of working as a PTA, I have practiced in a variety of settings. Some of these settings have allowed for a high level of autonomy (such as in my current workplace), and some have operated in quite the opposite-- where my treatments were dictated step-by-step by the PT. No matter the state in which one lives, physical therapy clinics will vary in their method of treatment and utilization of PTAs. In Illinois, where I practice, the following is the detailed description of a PTA per the Illinois Practice Act:
"'Physical therapist assistant' means a person licensed to assist a physical therapist and who has met all requirements as provided in this Act and who works under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist to assist in implementing the physical therapy treatment program as established by the licensed physical therapist. The patient care activities provided by the physical therapist assistant shall not include the interpretation of referrals, evaluation procedures, or the planning or major modification of patient programs." (http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs3.asp?ActID=1319&ChapterID=24)
Additionally, per the APTA's Standards of Ethical Conduct for the Physical Therapist Assistant: "6B. Physical therapist assistants shall engage in lifelong learning consistent with changes in their roles and responsibilities and advances in the practice of physical therapy." (http://www.apta.org/uploadedFiles/APTAorg/About_Us/Policies/Ethics/StandardsEthicalConductPTA.pdf) Personally, I take this as a green light for PTA's to immerse themselves in whatever their niche or passion may be. Thus, if a PTA is following this standard, and the advances in PT call for more trained therapists with an understanding of the pelvic floor, and the appropriate oversight provided-- as in my case; what is the hold-up?
Counter to the above expectations, the Section on Women's Health's Position Statement on Internal Pelvic Floor Assessment and Treatment states:
"Any internal pelvic (vaginal or rectal) myofascial release or soft tissue mobilization techniques that would require a continuous ongoing re-evaluation and reassessment should be performed by the physical therapist and not delegated to supportive personnel including physical therapist assistants. The SOWH recognizes that therapeutic exercise, neuromuscular reeducation and behavioral retraining techniques for pelvic floor dysfunction at times requires ongoing critical decision making while at other times are relatively routine. In the routine circumstances, those techniques may be delegated. When the higher level of critical decision making is necessary those techniques should be performed by the physical therapist and not delegated to support personnel including the physical therapist assistant."
In this above set-up, PTA's are made to sound as if incapable of using any critical thinking skills. Or, at the least, able to operate with very limited critical reasoning. Furthermore, in the typical treatment of pelvic floor conditions, how is the decision-making process required for individualized treatment any different than that to the external pelvis, or the low back, or the foot for that matter?! The skill and awareness that was required in transferring a patient in the ICU when I was a new grad was in some ways more complex with more of a direct impact on a person's survival and well-being, than what I do now. Yet, how am I not qualified to do something in which I have extensive training? This seems inconsistent.
In my opinion, the PTA is more than just "supportive personnel". On the other hand, I also believe that new PTA grads may not have a place in pelvic floor PT. There are complexities within, and knowledge required of anatomy and physiology of the pelvis, which the PTA does not get from his or her program. Though doctorate students entering the PT world today also do not have much exposure to the pelvic floor, they at least have gone through a more thorough coverage of anatomy, physiology, and disease processes. Despite the differences in schooling, MANY physical therapists see their assistants as vital assets to their clinics.
One incredibly positive aspect of being a PTA is the follow-through I have with my clients. I LOVE getting to know my patients, and feel that I am allowed this luxury more frequently than PT's whose schedules may need to stay open for new evaluations. I frequently have clients say to me, "I would never have dreamed that I'd be talking about (fill in the blank) with ANYBODY!" Usually, this is after a few sessions of working together. I cherish seeing the freedom and healing that comes when people feel comfortable enough to open up their physical, emotional, and spiritual selves.
Yes, as a PTA we are limited by the scope of practice placed before us. However, I do not see that as a set of limitations that binds us to a very narrow existence. With the training one receives through continuing education such as with Herman & Wallace, the PTA can gain the necessary skills for treatment. And from this, the possibilities are endless!