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What’s the Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy?



If you’re considering a career in occupational or physical therapy, you may be wondering exactly what the difference is between these two professions. That’s totally understandable, as these two healthcare fields share a lot in common and are often confused with one another.

Both professions provide vital, hands-on rehabilitative work to help clients and patients perform daily tasks with optimal independence and quality of life. Additionally, both require many of the same skills, offer competitive salaries, and enjoy strong job outlooks. However, occupational therapy and physical therapy take different approaches to how they improve people’s lives. So, if you’re interested in pursuing one of these career paths, it may be helpful for you to understand some of these key distinctions first.

Luckily, we’ve made it easy with this useful blog post that breaks down the differences between occupational therapy and physical therapy—from daily job duties and specialization opportunities to educational requirements and lots more. By learning more about each of these exciting fields, we hope to equip you with the information you need to choose the right career path for you.

Part 1: The Basics

At the most fundamental level, physical therapy focuses specifically on improving a patient’s ability to perform body movements and function, while occupational therapy focuses on improving a client’s ability to perform everyday activities. For a more in-depth description of each, read on.

Physical Therapy (PT)

PT is the physical rehabilitation of people recovering from injuries or disease, with physical therapists treating the patient’s actual impairment. Physical therapists are trained extensively in body mechanics and use treatment techniques that are designed to reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability. For someone recovering from a stroke, a physical therapist might develop exercises to strengthen the patient’s muscles for walking, standing, and other movements.

Occupational Therapy (OT)

OT takes a more holistic approach, with the overall goal of helping clients perform daily activities with the highest degree of independence possible. Occupational therapy practitioners treat clients who are recovering from injuries or have developmental or cognitive disabilities. Their approach may include physical exercise, wellness promotion, therapeutic adaptations, and modifications to the client’s home and work environments. For someone recovering from a stroke, an occupational therapist might develop treatments to help the client manage daily activities like eating, bathing, and getting dressed.

Part 2: Specific Job Duties

To work in occupational therapy or physical therapy, you can choose to become either an occupational therapist (OT), an occupational therapy assistant (OTA), a physical therapist (PT), or physical therapy assistant (PTA). While each role has different educational and licensure requirements (which we’ll cover later in this post), we’ve briefly outlined the job responsibilities below to give you a better sense of what your day-to-day duties could look like in each position, so you can choose the career path that’s right for you.

Occupational Therapist (OT):

  • Evaluates the client’s condition and treatment needs
  • Develops individualized treatment plan for clients
  • Helps clients perform daily tasks and self-care, and advises on adaptive equipment
  • Records and assesses client progress
  • Evaluates client’s home and/or workplace to identify potential improvements, and educates family members and employers on the recommended adjustments

Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA):

  • Collaborates with occupational therapists to help clients develop and recover skills for completing activities of daily living
  • Implements treatment programs created by OTs (including activities, exercises, and training on adaptive equipment)
  • Tracks client progress and reports to the OT
  • Provides guidance to family members, caregivers, and other healthcare providers on how they can best support the client’s treatment program
  • Maintains treatment areas and sets up therapy equipment

Physical Therapist (PT):

  • Diagnoses physical problems caused by injury or illness
  • Develops individualized treatment plans for patients
  • Utilizes exercises, stretching, hands-on therapy, and equipment to help increase mobility, ease pain, and facilitate improved patient health
  • Maintains records and tracks patient’s goals and progress
  • Creates wellness programs aimed at preventing injury
  • Educate patients about the recovery process

Physical Therapy Assistant (PTA):

  • Provides physical therapy services under the direction and supervision of a physical therapist
  • Implements treatment plans created with PTs (including stretching, strength training, exercises, and use of equipment)
  • Tracks patient progress before, during, and after therapy, and reports to the PT
  • Maintains treatment areas and sets up therapy equipment

Related Resource: What Does an Occupational Therapy Assistant Do?

Part 3: Specialization Opportunities

People with careers in occupational and physical therapy work in many of the same practice areas, including hospitals, schools, and clinic facilities. Both fields also offer specialty certification, which can give you a competitive edge professionally, as well as provide the opportunity to pursue the areas of interest that are most meaningful to you.

Occupational Therapy
If occupational therapy sounds like a better fit for you, both occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants can receive AOTA Specialty Certification in:

  • Driving and Community Mobility
  • Environmental Modification
  • Feeding, Eating, and Swallowing
  • Low Vision
  • School Systems

Additionally, occupational therapists can receive AOTA Board Certification in:

  • Gerontology
  • Mental Health
  • Pediatrics
  • Physical Rehabilitation

Physical Therapy
If you’re interested in pursuing a specialty within the PT field, physical therapists can receive APTA Specialist Certification in:

  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women’s Health
  • Oncology

Related Resource: Where Do Occupational Therapy Assistants Work?

Part 4: Education & Certification Requirements

As we mentioned earlier, the educational, certification, and licensure requirements vary depending on the physical and occupational therapy career you wish to pursue—whether it’s becoming a PT, PTA, OT, or OTA.

Becoming a physical therapist requires a doctoral level degree, while becoming an occupational therapist generally requires a master’s degree. For both of these roles, that can mean spending a significant amount of time in school before beginning your career. If you’re looking for a quicker way to enter the field, consider becoming an occupational therapy assistant or physical therapy assistant instead, as the required associate’s degree for those roles can be completed faster—allowing you to start your new career sooner. For example, Ameritech’s OTA program allows you to complete the required training in just 20 months. Another important thing to consider is where you plan to practice, as different states often have different licensing and certification requirements for each role.

Occupational Therapist
To become an occupational therapist, you’ll need to first earn a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s degree in occupational therapy (which takes between 2-3 years) or a doctorate in occupational therapy (which takes about three years). You’ll also need to pass the NBCOT exam and apply for licensure in your state.

Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA)
To become an OTA, you’ll need to first earn an associate’s degree. Then, you’ll need to successfully pass the NBCOT exam and obtain a license to practice as an OTA in the state where you plan to work. Keep in mind that licensing requirements and procedures for this position vary slightly by state, so be sure to consult with your state’s occupational therapy regulatory agency for specific licensure requirements.

If a career as an occupational therapy assistant sounds like a good fit for you, consider taking Ameritech’s fully accredited OTA program. With clinical practice, classroom instruction, and rigorous coursework, you can graduate and start a career as a qualified OTA in less than 20 months.

Physical Therapist
To become a physical therapist, you must first earn a bachelor’s degree, followed by a professional degree—usually a doctorate in physical therapy (which takes about three years to complete). Then, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) and become licensed in the state where you plan to work.

Physical Therapy Assistant
To become a PTA, you’ll first need to earn an associate’s degree and then, pass the NPTE. Depending on the licensing requirements of the state, you may also need to pass a state examination and obtain CPR and First Aid certification.

Related Resource: Occupational Therapy Assistant Schools: 9 Things to Consider

Part 5: Job Outlook and Salary

Occupational therapy and physical therapy both offer competitive salaries, and both professions are expected to see remarkable growth through at least 2026.

Occupational Therapists
Employment of occupational therapists is projected to grow by 24% from 2016-2026 compared to just 7% for all occupations. As of May 2018, the median annual wage for occupational therapists was $84,270 a year.

Occupational Therapy Assistants
Overall employment of occupational therapy assistants is projected to grow by 28% from 2016-2026 vs. just 7% for all other occupations. As of May 2018, the median annual wage for occupational therapy assistants was $62,220 a year, with top earners in the field bringing home as much as $80,980 a year.

Physical Therapists
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of physical therapists is projected to grow by 28% from 2016-2026—much higher than the average growth rate of 7% for all occupations. As of May 2018, the median annual pay for physical therapists in the U.S. was $87,930 a year.

Physical Therapy Assistants
Overall employment of physical therapy assistants is projected to grow by 30% from 2016-2026 compared to the 7% average for all occupations. As of May 2018, the median annual wage for physical therapy assistants was $58,040 a year.

Conclusion

While physical and occupational therapy offer distinct approaches and job duties, healthcare professionals working within these fields both do critical hands-on work to help their clients achieve a better quality of life and greater independence. In addition, both fields provide the opportunity to do meaningful work helping others, while earning competitive wages in a highly-valued and in-demand job market.

By diving into detail about the responsibilities and requirements for each position, we hope that we’ve clarified the differences between these two fields and given you the information you need to decide which career path might be the best fit for you. Ultimately, the path you choose is likely to come down to your own unique skills and interests, as well as how long you want to spend in school before beginning your new career.

If you’re interested in taking the fast-track to a career in one of these rapidly growing healthcare fields, Ameritech’s 20-month OTA program may be a great place for you to start. We’re proud to be one of only two schools in Utah that are fully accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) and there are no prerequisites required to enroll. Plus, our OTA students give our program a 92% satisfaction rating.

Interested in learning more about Ameritech’s OTA program? Click here to find out how we can help you start a thriving new career as an occupational therapy assistant.