The Fields of Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy: What’s the Difference?

The fields of occupational therapy and physical therapy are often confused. While both roles provide essential hands-on rehabilitative work to help clients perform everyday tasks as independently as possible, each field takes a diverse approach in helping people get back to their usual way of life.

What's the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy?

OT vs PT: One Basic Difference

The main difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy is that OT focuses on improving a client’s ability to perform activities of daily living (ADL) and PT focuses on improving a client’s ability to perform movement of the human body.

Occupational Therapist

An occupational therapist treats the whole person. Whether they’re recovering from injuries or have developmental or cognitive disabilities affecting their motor skills, emotions or behavior, OTs are helping people to fully engage in daily life.

According to the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, occupational therapy is unique in that it uses a holistic approach to look not only at the reasons a client’s participation in activities has been impacted, but also at the client’s roles and environment. The approach includes wellness promotion, rehabilitation, and habilitation.

For example, you recently broke your foot after playing basketball and can no longer participate in your Wednesday night pick up league. While recovering, you could meet with an OT to get to the root of why you look forward to playing each week. Is it the exercise that’s important? Is it engaging with the people on your team? Your OT will help you to accomplish your goal.

Physical Therapist

A physical therapist treats the patient’s actual impairment from a biomechanical perspective. Physical therapy tries to improve the impairment itself by increasing mobility, aligning bones and joints, or lessening pain.

A PT’s primary goal is to get their patients back in motion with exercises, massage and other techniques.

They focus on preventing injuries and can help people avoid surgery or a long term-reliance on medications.

You love playing outdoors with your kids, but can’t anymore due to a herniated disc. Your physical therapist will work with you to create a specific treatment program that will speed up your recovery, including exercises and stretches that you can do at home.

OT vs PT: How They Overlap

Although the fields of occupational therapy and physical therapy serve different roles in health care, there is a lot of crossover between the two.

  • Both educate people on how to prevent and avoid injuries.
  • Both educate people about the healing process.
  • Both assist people with improving their ability to perform daily activities through training and education.
  • Both play very important roles and specialize in their areas of expertise.
Occupational therapy and physical therapy share the goal of helping the client progress.

The fields of occupational therapy and physical therapy can be similar in some ways because helping the client progress is a shared goal.

In some cases, patients may start with a physical therapist and progress to an occupational therapist. For example, someone recovering from a severe stroke might work with a physical therapist to build back muscle strength. Later on, that person would see an occupational therapist to practice basic skills the stroke may have impaired such as, bathing, dressing, eating and walking.

Why Choose Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy is more than just a “job,” it’s a rewarding profession that is respected and is in overwhelming demand.

You have the chance to work with individuals from all walks of life and create individualized treatments based upon your patient’s interests and needs.

Becoming an occupational therapist will not only change your life; it will make a tremendous impact on others’ lives too. As an OTA, you will experience the following benefits:

Watch your work develop over time.

If you appreciate seeing your work develop from start to finish, a career in occupational therapy may be the right fit for you. Not only are OTA’s helping individuals have independent, productive and satisfying lives, but they are measuring their patients progress each step of the way.

However, achieving success with your patient takes much time and effort and doesn’t happen overnight. St. Catherine University’s Online Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) program, will help you to recognize the behaviors and attributes required for success in the OT profession, which include:

  • Strong communication and interpersonal skills
  • Effective use of time and resources
  • Proper use of constructive criticism
  • Excellent problem solving and critical thinking skills

You have autonomy.

As with any health care profession, occupational therapy is brimming with regulations, but you have the autonomy to bring whatever creativity and insight you believe will provide the most value to your patients, under the supervision of an Occupational Therapist, Registered (OTR). Often times, your patients won’t be able to adjust to a specific plan or challenge. It’s up to you to discover a way to help them adapt.

A park or playground can serve as place for occupational therapists to help children.

Occupational therapists might take a child client to a park to work on balance where they are surrounded by other children their age.

For example, instead of taking a child to a normal rehabilitation center to acquire balance and develop their range of motion and strength, you could take them to a park, where they can be surrounded by other children their age who may not have the same inabilities. This will help your patient communicate with others and have fun while learning.

During our Online OTA program, you will experience supervised fieldwork in diverse areas of occupational therapy. Fieldwork will give you direct access to clients of all ages and situations in a real-world rehabilitation setting.

At St. Catherine University, our OTA program goes above and beyond providing you with the most comprehensive fieldwork experience. You will work both in group settings with your cohort and one-on-one with clients, under the supervision of an OTR. This is your opportunity to gain hands-on experience so you can enhance your creativity and try new things.

You have opportunities for specialization.

In the field of occupational therapy, there are a variety of different areas in which you can pursue. And, our core curriculum at St. Catherine University will allow you to experience the depths of each one.

After you complete the 12 scheduled skills labs, 720 hours of fieldwork, and pass the NBCOT® Exam, you will have the opportunity to specialize in one of the six core practice areas of OT, including:

  1. Children and Youth
  2. Health and Wellness
  3. Mental Health
  4. Work and Industry
  5. Rehabilitation and Disability
  6. Work and Industry

Related: Occupational Therapy Assistant: Among the Top Healthcare Jobs in Demand

Begin Your OTA Journey Today

Now that you understand the difference between the fields of occupational therapy and physical therapy, it’s time to pursue your passion. If you’re ready to earn an associate’s degree and join the noble and diverse field of occupational therapy, contact our admissions team today.

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