Occupational therapy could very well be healthcare’s best kept secret. Every year, countless people of all ages overcome injuries, illnesses and disabilities, in the process regaining hope — thanks to the hardworking OTs and OTAs who dedicate their time and energy to making a difference.
Despite this, occupational therapy doesn’t receive the same recognition as, say, its better-known relative physical therapy, which is surprising when you consider both fields began to emerge around the same time more than 200 years ago.
To help clear up any confusion about this life-changing profession, we’ll be discussing facts about the occupational therapy assistant profession that you probably don’t know … like that St. Catherine University was the first school in the United States to offer a dedicated OTA degree program or that you can start a career in occupational therapy much sooner by becoming an OTA.
In the process, we will also be exploring the history of occupational therapy, the many occupational therapy practice settings and applications, and the differences between occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants. But first, a quick breakdown of the relationship between OTs and OTAs is in order.
The Relationship between OTs and OTAs Explained
As the name implies, occupational therapists are ultimately responsible for the care clients receive. They conduct the initial client meeting to determine his or her needs and goals, and then develop a treatment plan. For this reason, OTs must hold a bachelor’s and master’s degree, though it’s likely the role will eventually require a doctorate degree.
Depending on the size of the practice, the OT may work with the client directly to implement the treatment plan, or he or she may hand the treatment plan off to an OTA to carry out. In the case of the latter, the OTA will take detailed notes on the client’s progress, any challenges faced and so on, and report those to the OT regularly. Because OTAs do not operate with the same level of autonomy as OTs, it’s possible to become an occupational therapy assistant with an associate’s degree.
However, this should not be interpreted to mean that OTAs are simply order-takers. In many cases, OTAs must rely on their knowledge of occupational therapy interventions, anatomy and body mechanics, psychology, and psychosocial approaches to care to modify treatment plans as needed, as well as to provide the physical and emotional support needed to be successful. As a result, creativity is a must.
It’s also worth noting that some practices also employ occupational therapy aides, who operate below the level of OTAs. That said, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were currently only about 8,000 occupational therapy aides practicing in the United States in 2019 — compared to 47,100 OTAs in 2019. What’s more, while it’s anticipated the OTA professional will grow by at least 16,300 by 2029, the BLS only anticipates the OT aid profession will only grow by about 1,000 for that same time period, making OTA clearly a better way to get into occupational therapy.
So with all of this in mind, let’s dive into the main topic of interest … facts about occupational therapy assistants.
7 Facts You May Not Know About Occupational Therapy Assistants
Considering becoming an occupational therapy assistant? Here are seven things you may not know about OTAs.
1. OTAs make a difference in the lives of people of all ages.
The great thing about being an OTA is you get to share in the joy of helping someone overcome or cope with an injury, illness or disability. As an occupational therapy assistant, you can work with people of all ages.
That’s because occupational therapy is incredibly broad, covering six practice areas:
- Children and Youth
- Productive Aging
- Health and Wellness
- Mental Health
- Rehabilitation and Disability
- Work and Industry
It’s this diversity of practice areas that appeals to many people, like Charmaine, a graduate of St. Kate’s Online OTA program. “I love working with all types of people of all ages,” says the former teacher, noting, “because of my background, I’m still leaning toward pediatrics, but what’s nice is that I have the option [to work in a variety of practice areas]. That’s what our professors always let us know. There are so many paths you can take with this degree. You know, if you don’t enjoy working with seniors, you don’t have to.”
2. As an OTA, you can work in a variety of settings.
Considering occupational therapy deals with clients at all stages of life, it’s not surprising you might find OTs and OTAs in a wide range of occupational therapy settings, including:
- Assisted-living facilities
- Community centers
- Corrections centers
- Elementary and secondary schools
- Healthcare practitioners’ offices
- Home healthcare services
- Hospitals (general medical, surgical, psychiatric, substance abuse, etc.)
- Rehabilitation centers
- Retirement communities
- Skilled nursing facilities
- Therapists’ offices
- Workplaces (offices, factories, etc.)
That said, while OTs and OTAs can be found working in many settings, the percentage breakdowns per area differ between occupational therapists and therapy assistants.
|Practice Area||Percentage of OTs*||Percentage of OTAs**|
|Schools & Educational Services||12%||4%|
|Skilled Nursing Facilities||8%||15%|
|Home Healthcare Services||9%||6%|
3. There’s a big demand for occupational therapy services nationwide.
With so many practice areas and occupational therapy settings, you wouldn’t be wrong to surmise that demand is quite high for OTAs. Just consider the following:
- The number of children diagnosed with developmental disabilities is increasing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16.2% children were diagnosed with a developmental disability (including 8.5% with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and 1.1% with autism spectrum disorder) in 2009–2011. For the period of 2015–2017, 17.8% of children were diagnosed with a developmental disability (9.5% with ADHD and 2.5% with autism).
- The percentage of people with diabetes is alarming to say the least. Currently, about 10% of Americans have diabetes, and around a third of adults are considered pre-diabetic. Not only that, the number of young Americans diagnosed with diabetes is on the rise.
- In the United States, someone has a stroke every 40 seconds, according to the CDC. That’s 795,000 people a year who will suffer a stroke, of which about 25% will suffer another.
- The number of Americans 65 and older is expected to grow through 2060. Additionally, the average life expectancy is expected to increase from 79.1 in 2017 to 85.6 in 2060, when it’s anticipated there will be around 95 million Americans older than 65 (compared to less than 50 million in 2016).
- America is facing a growing obesity epidemic. According to the CDC, as of 2018, 42.4% of adults and 18.5% of children in the U.S. were considered obese, and the numbers aren’t getting any better. In fact, the prevalence of obesity is increasing. This presents considerable challenges for public health, such as increased disease risk.
So what does all of this have to do with occupational therapy? A lot, actually. In all of these instances, occupational therapists and therapy assistants can help. For example, occupational therapy might be employed to help a child on the autism spectrum to deal with the stress caused by social situations, like going to school. In the cases of diabetes and obesity, occupational therapy can help to identify habits that could be modified for a healthier lifestyle. Stroke survivors often suffer the loss of skills or coordination, and occupational therapy can help survivors regain abilities and even minimize the risk of another stroke. And for the growing number of senior citizens, occupational therapy can help them maintain independence so they can spend their golden years at home.
Of course, these are just a few examples of ways OTs and OTAs help people — and help illustrate why the demand for occupational therapy services will only grow in the coming years. However, it helps to look at the numbers.
As mentioned earlier, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of OTAs employed in 2029 will top 63,500, up from 47,100 in 2019 — for an increase of around 35%, making it one of the fastest-growing professions in the U.S. That translates to around 1,630 new positions each year between 2019 and 2029, not including any positions that will need to be filled to replace people who retire from the profession or change careers.
That said, demand is obviously not equal from state to state, and some states employ more OTAs than others. Currently, Ohio, Texas, Florida, New York and Texas employ the highest number of OTAs, while Ohio, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Rhode Island and Connecticut employ the most OTAs relative to the population.
Of course, before choosing any career, you should research the demand in your area, unless you are looking to relocate to a place where demand is greater. Projections Central, which leverages BLS data on a state-by-state basis, is a great place to do this.
4. You can earn a solid income as an OTA.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), about 50% of occupational therapy assistants earn an average of $61,150 a year. On top of that, the BLS, which is responsible for tracking occupational data nationwide, reports the top 10% of OTA earners make a mean average of $82,210 a year.
As with any career, though, earning potential is heavily dependent on location, with contributing factors including regional demand and cost of living. While the BLS reports an annual mean salary of $73,680 for OTAs in New Jersey, OTAs in Ohio earn an annual mean salary of $60,810. And this makes a whole lot of sense when considering the cost of living for each state.
To illustrate this point, let’s take a quick look at the median home price for each state compared to the national average. According to data collected by Sperling’s Best Places, the average median home price for the United States overall is $231,200. By contrast, the median home price in Ohio is just $140,170, while New Jersey’s median home price is $329,300.
Considering examples like these, it makes sense that in Ohio, the state that employs the most OTAs (and has the highest concentration of OTAs), occupational therapy assistants don’t earn as much as in New Jersey, the highest-paying state for OTAs. So while average pay varies, it shows OTAs can earn a healthy living all over the country, whether or not it may look that way at a first glance of the salary data.
5. It’s possible to earn your OTA degree in as few as 16 months.
Becoming an occupational therapist requires you to earn a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, and that takes a lot of time. Not only that, it’s not uncommon to find lengthy waitlists to get into occupational therapy programs.
By becoming an OTA, it’s possible to enter this field sooner, at which point you can always go back to school later on if you wish to further your career. With St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program, it’s possible to graduate ready to sit for certified occupational therapy assistant (COTA) licensure in 16–24 months, depending on your current educational level.
6. You may be able to study OTA without relocating.
There’s another benefit to St. Kate’s Online OTA program … with learning site locations in California, Minnesota, Texas and Virginia, you have more choices of where to earn your OTA education. And with three starts a year, you can start sooner, too.
However, what people really love about our many locations is the flexibility it provides them. While the bulk of your coursework will be completed online, there are two components of our program that require in-person learning: skills labs and fieldwork.
Fortunately, skills labs occur about once every three to four weeks, and on weekends. For that reason, some past students have elected to travel to their learning sites and two, three-day Fieldwork Level I sessions rather than relocate. How is this possible with 640 hours of Level II Fieldwork, though?
When you enroll in St. Kate’s Online OTA program, you’ll be assigned a fieldwork coordinator who will work with you to find fieldwork opportunities near you, if at all possible. This way you’ll get the hands-on experience you need in both a physical disabilities practice setting and an emerging practice setting or area of special interest. Just keep in mind that where you live plays a big factor in finding opportunities within convenient driving distance.
7. St. Kate’s was the first university to offer an OTA degree program.
As you’ll find out when we discuss the history of occupational therapy, though the certified occupational therapy assistant (COTA) role had been around since 1956, it wasn’t until 1964 that the first-degree program was offered — at St. Catherine University. Almost 50 years later, St. Kate’s again made OTA history when it launched the first hybrid Online OTA program, making it possible for more people to receive a quality occupational therapy education.
Speaking of history … now that you know these seven facts about OTAs, let’s dig into the background of this exciting profession.
The History of Occupational Therapy
Like nursing, physical therapy, and a number of healthcare professions, occupational therapy as we know it today has its origins in the 1800s — inspired by Enlightenment-era thinking. At the time, medical care was primitive at best, and those with mental illnesses often suffered unspeakable cruelty in asylums and poor houses. However, a new school of thought was emerging, one that focused on the emotional needs of the individual.
Occupational Therapy and the Advent of Compassionate Care
Soon, new centers for the mentally ill began to emerge. Rather than treating those with mental conditions as prisoners or science experiments, these new centers focused on providing care that was rooted in kindness and human dignity. Early examples include William Tuke’s The York Retreat. Inspired by his Quaker principles, the York Retreat provided patients enjoyment via long, airy corridors and peaceful gardens for them to move around — and sometimes even musical performances. In fact, the progressive religious thought of the day played a major role in the development of occupational therapy.
Concurrently, an emphasis on moral treatment began to take hold, inspired by the ideas of the “Father of American Psychiatry,” Benjamin Rush, during the early 1800s. This thinking led to the use of arts and crafts as interventions. Rather than asking what could be done with the infirmed, practitioners began to ask what would give their lives meaning and enjoyment.
By the century’s end, the benefits of arts and crafts (in a sense, occupations) were becoming well known, not just for the mentally ill but for those recovering from accidents or illnesses. At the same time, the concept of work therapy, which held that people benefit from having a purpose, also began to grow in popularity.
Eventually, these ideas culminated in the founding of the National Society for Promotion of Occupational Therapy (NSPOT) in 1917 by three women and three men, including the “Mother of Occupational Therapy,” Eleanor Clark Sagle, and the “Father of Occupational Therapy,” Dr. William Rush Dunton, Jr., a psychiatrist. (The American Occupational Therapy Association, or AOTA, later replaced the NSPOT in 1921.)
However, it would take tragedy for the true potential of occupational therapy to be seen.
Occupational Therapy and the World Wars
By 1917, the U.S. had entered into World War I, and it proved to be a turning point for the profession, in part thanks to advocacy by orthopedists. During and after the war, wounded soldiers participated in arts and crafts and other activities that not only improved their moods, but more importantly helped them to cope with and overcome their injuries. This in turn led to a boom in occupational therapy programs and schools, of which St. Catherine University (then the College of St. Catherine) was an early player.
As word of this growing profession spread, so too did the demand for services, and by the end of World War II, the need for occupational therapy services was greater than ever as a result of the number of injured requiring rehabilitation. It was also at this time that OT began to focus on enhancing medical outcomes.
Over the coming years, the demand for OTs and the evolution of the practice precipitated the creation of a new role — the certified occupational therapy assistant (COTA) — and St. Kate’s was again a key player, this time with the introduction of the first two-year OTA program in North America in 1964.
Since then, OT has evolved to focus not only on rehabilitation, recovery and living a meaningful life but on prevention of diseases and other conditions such as diabetes, maintaining independence and continued quality of life. And as the prevalence of chronic conditions and disabilities rises and the population ages, occupational therapy will continue to evolve, finding new ways to give hope.
Ready to Write Your Role in Occupational Therapy History?
If changing lives is what you were called to do, becoming an OTA is a great way to do it. Give us a call today, or fill out the form to have an admissions counselor contact you, to find out how you can earn your Associate of Applied Science in OTA from St. Kate’s in as few as 16 months.