Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy: What's the Difference?

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Both occupational therapy and physical therapy are worthwhile lines of work to enter into, but it’s important to understand the ins and outs of each before deciding which is the right healthcare career path for you. The main difference between occupational therapy vs. physical therapy is that OT focuses on improving a client’s ability to perform activities of daily living and PT focuses on improving a client’s ability to perform a movement of the human body.

To help you determine whether OT or PT is the right career path for you, we’ll first explore all the responsibilities of each. We’ll then get into the differences and similarities of the fields and why St. Catherine University’s Online Occupational Therapy Assistant program is a great option to help you enter the rewarding field of occupational therapy.

What Do Occupational Therapists Do?

What makes occupational therapy unique is that occupational therapists treat the whole person — not just one issue. Whether they’re assisting those recovering from injuries or who 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 (NBCOT), occupational therapy uses a holistic approach to look not only at the reasons a client’s participation in activities has been affected but also at the client’s roles and environment.

The approach focuses on three areas:

  • Wellness promotion
  • Rehabilitation
  • Habilitation

This approach aims to support the well-being in every dimension of a person’s life, including social, physical, emotional and occupational.

What Do Physical Therapists Do?

In contrast, 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 prevent injuries or 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. This approach is certainly important and can lead to activities that are fulfilling, but a PT’s main goal is to rehabilitate an injury, not the entire patient.

5 Reasons to Choose Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy is more than just a “job” — it’s a rewarding profession with great benefits. Here are five of them:

1. OTAs Work with All Types of Clients

As an OT or OTA, 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. This means you could be seeing adults, children and seniors all in one day. You’ll be implementing a variety of different methods of care with each, which means you’re not likely to get bored on the job.

student helping elderly woman with stretch bands on her feet

2. OTA Job Outlook

Another great benefit to being an OTA is the job outlook for the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates employment for the profession will grow by 34 percent from 2020 to 2030. For reference, the BLS expects overall U.S. employment to grow by just 4 percent for the same period. This incredible growth may be due to both a need to replace retiring professionals as well as an aging population who will need the services provided by OTAs.

3. OTAs Work Independently — and Creatively

As an occupational therapy assistant, 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, 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.

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 OTAs helping individuals have independent, productive and satisfying lives, but they measure their patients’ progress each step of the way.

4. OTAs Work in a Variety of Workplace Environments

Plus, you won’t be stuck in one location all day long. Just as you’ll be working with lots of different people, you are able to take them to different environments as part of their therapy plan.

OTA working with man and sitting on couch

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.

5. OTAs Have Opportunities for Specialization

You can pursue a variety of specialty areas as an occupational therapist. And, our core curriculum at St. Catherine University will allow you to experience the depths of each one.

After you complete the 8 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:

  • Children and Youth
  • Health and Wellness
  • Mental Health
  • Work and Industry
  • Rehabilitation and Disability
  • Work and Industry

Want more information on these areas of practice? Read more about the good, the bad and the ugly of OT and find out why Occupational Therapy is a great career choice that leads to a rewarding job in healthcare.

How to Become an OTA: St. Kate’s Online OTA Program

However, achieving success with your patients 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
  • Autonomy

If you have these traits, our OTA program might be perfect for you.

OTA students practicing skills in skills lab

During our Online OTA program, you’ll 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.

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

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 degree and join the noble and diverse field of occupational therapy, contact our admissions team today.

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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