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

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While there are certainly similarities between occupational therapy vs physical therapy, there are many differences that will help you determine which is right for you. Learn why choose occupational therapy by exploring what they do, who they work with, the job outlook, and more.

OT at home care with patient

Occupational and physical therapy are both worthwhile lines of work to enter. Still, 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 body movement.

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 engage in daily life fully.

According to the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT), occupational therapy uses a holistic approach to examine the reasons a client’s participation in activities has been affected and 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.

man high-fiving an elderly woman

What Do Physical Therapists Do?

In contrast, a physical therapist treats the patient’s actual impairment from a biomechanical perspective. Physical therapy improves the impairment 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, massages, and other techniques. They focus on preventing injuries and can help people avoid surgery or a long-term reliance on medications. This approach is important and can lead to fulfilling activities, but a PT’s primary goal is to rehabilitate an injury, not the entire patient.

Differences In OT vs. PT

Exploring the “why” behind your decision-making is essential when examining the differences between OT vs. PT. While the two professions have many practical similarities, the focuses differ. While physical therapy provides rehabilitation of the body to help heal and prevent injuries or other physical ailments, occupational therapy takes a more holistic approach that involves physical well-being alongside emotional, social, and environmental well-being.

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 can work with individuals from all walks of life and create individualized treatments based on your patient’s interests and needs. This means you could tailor your career toward working with populations which could include adults, children or seniors. You’ll implement various care methods with each, which means you’re not likely to get bored on the job.

OT helping elderly patient

Learn more about how to find variety in your career with these six occupational therapy specialties.

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 in the profession will grow 23 percent from 2022 to 2032. This incredible growth may be due to both a need to replace retiring professionals and an aging population that will need the services OTAs provide.

3. OTAs Work Independently — and Creatively

As an occupational therapy assistant, you can 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 also measure their patients’ progress each step.

4. OTAs Work in a Variety of Workplace Environments

OTA using stretching bands with patient

Plus, you won’t be locked into delivering care in only one type of environment throughout your career. Just as you’ll be working with many people, you can work within multiple settings depending on the type of position you are in.

For example, if you want to work with children, you could do so in a position based within a clinical pediatric environment. However, if you feel more drawn toward providing care in educational or in-home settings, you can also find employment which puts you in these environments while you work to fulfill patient needs.

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 12 scheduled skills labs, level I and II fieldwork, and pass the NBCOT Exam, you will be able to pursue opportunities in one of the core practice areas of OT, including:

  • Children and Youth
  • Health and Wellness
  • Mental Health
  • Work and Industry
  • Rehabilitation and Disability
  • Work and Industry
  • Productive Aging
OT with geriatric patient

Want more information on these areas of practice? Read more about why occupational therapy is a great career choice leading to a rewarding healthcare job.

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

However, achieving success with your patients takes 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.

During our Online OTA program, you’ll learn according to a curriculum with a blended learning model combining online and onsite learning. Online-based coursework provides a baseline understanding of the material, preparing you for skills labs where you practice and learn in a hands-on environment. These labs develop your skills and help to prepare you for fieldwork, the final component of the OTA program which gives you direct access to clients of all ages and situations in a real-world rehabilitation setting.

three OT students posing and smiling in class

The St. Catherine University OTA program provides a comprehensive education, preparing students to confidently enter the field as a practice-ready OTA.

Begin Your OTA Journey Today

Now that you understand the difference between the fields of occupational therapy vs. 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.

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