Medical Associate Degree Programs: OTA vs. Medical Assistant

If you’re looking to break into the medical field, you might be looking at a variety of medical associate degree programs and wondering, “Which medical associate degree program is right for me?”

Before deciding which medical associate degree program to pursue you’ll want to consider the career growth, salary, and the various tasks of each profession. In this blog, we’ll look at occupational therapy assistants and medical assistants and apply the aforementioned criteria.

Which career path should you consider? Hopefully you’ll find some answers by the end.

There's more to medical associate degrees than medial assistant

What is Occupational Therapy Assistant?

Occupational therapy assistants (OTA) works with a wide variety of patient including those experiencing mental, physical, or development difficulties. As an OTA, you’ll carry out specific treatment plans developed by an OTR, such as teaching patients mobility-enhancing exercise, how to feed and dress themselves, or how to garden again.

OTAs will often prepare materials, assemble equipment, record details of a patient’s progress, and more. As an OTA, you have the opportunity to work with patients of all ages in a wide variety of settings.

Occupational therapy assistants work with a registered occupational therapist (OTR) to help improve the quality of life for various patients. This is very similar to a Nurse-Doctor relationship.

Some on-the-job tasks of an occupational therapy assistant might include:

  • Teaching an amputee how to make breakfast or clean his or her house
  • Working with an autistic child to improve his or her cognitive abilities, speech, or motor skills
  • Helping to construct a plan so a wheelchair-bound child can navigate school hallways, the locker room, and the cafeteria on his or her own
  • Working through therapeutic exercises with a patient, such as stretches or other exercises
  • Helping a patient with post-traumatic stress disorder navigate the job market and find a job that works for him or her
  • Re-teaching motor or speech skills to a patient who has suffered a stroke

What is a Medical Assistant?

Medical assistants perform routine administrative and clinical tasks to keep the offices of physicians and other health practitioners running smoothly. Medical assistants also collect and prepare laboratory specimens or perform basic laboratory tests.

Not to be confused with a physician assistant, medical assistants do a variety of administrative and clinical duties.

Medical assistants typically do the following:

  • Greet patients
  • Answer phones
  • Take and record patient history and personal information
  • Schedule patient appointments
  • Record vital signs
  • Assist the physician during the examination
  • Prepare blood for laboratory tests
  • Give patients injected as directed by the physician

The Differences and Similarities of these Medical Associate Degree Programs

Now that you understand the key components of each job, let’s look at how they are similar and how they’re different.


Occupational therapy assistants and medical assistants do possess a few similarities. Both jobs are great for people who want to work in health care and there isn’t a huge educational barrier to begin working.

Most employers look for someone who has completed a medical associate degree program to begin working as an OTA or a medical assistant. The degree requirements vary by state, but most programs don’t take long to complete; many take less than two years.

Another similarity is that in both roles you have the opportunity to work closely with patients. As an occupational therapy assistant, you work directly with patients, following an OTR’s specific treatment plan, and you get to watch your patients grow. As a medical assistant, you are the first and last point of contact for patients.


While they do have a few similarities, OTAs and medical assistants possess many differences. We’ll explore the three biggest differences below: salary, job growth, and work environment.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupational therapy assistants made a median annual salary of $60,950 in 2020, compared to medical assistants who make, on average, $35,850.

Job Growth

While both fields are experiencing growth, OTA is projected to grow by 32 percent by 2029, with medical assisting growing by 32 percent by 2029. As one of the fastest growing health care careers, demand for OTAs is expected to rise.

The OTA field is expected to grow quickly over the next several years.

Work Environment

Medical assistants work primarily in a physician’s office, health care facility, or in a hospital, while occupational therapy assistants work in a wide variety of places. OTAs typically work in:

  • Hospitals
  • Rehabilitation centers
  • Schools
  • Retirement homes, or
  • Private facilities.

OTAs may be required to travel or work in patients’ homes. Occupational therapy assistants have career flexibility and can decide which specific practice area they want to work within.

Which associate degree should you pursue?

Before choosing a medical associate degree program, decide what kind of medical professional you want to be. If you want to work in a traditional physician’s office setting, then a medical assisting career might be right for you.

If you want to work directly with patients, work to improve lives, and have the opportunity to work in a wide variety of settings and environments, then a career as an occupational therapy assistant might be right for you.

If you’re looking for a flexible schedule and workplace, the opportunity to impact patient lives, and job security, get started in St. Catherine’s online occupational therapy assistant program by contacting an admissions advisor today.

outside shot of st. kate campus

The Ultimate Guide to Occupational Therapy and OTA

Get answers to your questions about the field, about the OTA career path, and about St. Catherine University’s Online OTA program.

book with cover title: Occupational Therapy Assistant Explained