If you’re considering a career as an occupational therapy assistant (OTA) but aren’t sure how it differs from the role of a physical therapy assistant (PTA), you’re not alone.
The distinctions between occupational and physical therapy can be confusing — even among some in the healthcare profession — and it’s not uncommon to encounter people who believe the two fields are different in name only. While similar in some regards, the philosophies that drive the two fields and the work they do differs considerably.
Here, we’ll help clear up the differences between OTA vs. PTA.
Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy
Before diving into a comparison of the two roles, a brief overview of the two fields is in order. (For more on how the two fields compare, see our post, The Fields of Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy: What’s the Difference?)
Though one of the fastest growing fields in healthcare, there’s considerable ambiguity about what it is occupational therapy entails. No doubt some of this confusion stems from the name.
Typically, we hear “occupational” and think of “occupation” in the sense of a job. However, helping clients return to work is just one role of occupational therapy. The goal of occupational therapy is to improve skills necessary for daily independence, whether that means returning to work, navigating social situations, learning or aging. In this sense, it’s more accurate to think of “occupation” as “everyday activities.”
Occupational therapy takes a holistic approach to helping people affected by injuries, disabilities or other health conditions to do the things they want and need to do to live happy, healthy productive lives.
Whereas physical therapists focus on the root causes of impairment, occupational therapists also consider the behavioral, emotional and environmental factors involved in performing activities of daily living (ADLs).
OT focuses on six core practice areas:
- Children and Youth
- Productive Aging
- Mental Health
- Health and Wellness
- Rehabilitation and Disability
- Work and Industry
An occupational therapist (OT) might help address the needs of a dementia patient while also helping the family to understand and deal with their loved one’s changing mental state. An OT might also work with a young child at risk for developmental issues.
Physical therapy takes a treatment-based approach to helping people affected by injury, disease or other conditions to regain, improve and maintain mobility.
For example, after having knee surgery, a patient would undergo physical therapy to regain leg strength with the end goal of walking and running. This would likely involve special exercises, stretching, massage or heat therapy, and other techniques.
However, none of this is to say that one field is better than the other. Nor is one a substitute for the other. There are even instances when a person will undergo both physical therapy and occupational therapy.
OTA vs. PTA: Understanding the Work They Do
Now that you have a little background on the overall fields of occupational and physical therapy, you’re probably wondering about the work PTAs and OTAs do.
Occupational Therapy Assistants
Occupational therapy begins with an occupational therapist assessing a client’s needs and developing a therapy plan (sometimes referred to as a “therapeutic intervention”). An occupational therapy assistant then works with the client to carry out the prescribed plan. He or she will then report the client’s progress back to the OT, who will adjust the treatment plan as necessary.
Being an OTA requires a creative approach to problems, as every situation is at least somewhat different. Where a PTA might work with a patient to do a certain exercise, an OTA might need to adapt a tool (such as a fork), or make or identify other environmental modifications to accommodate a client’s needs.
As an OTA, you will likely find yourself dealing with a plethora of situations and needs. This might include helping a client through exercises designed to help him regain motion needed to perform a task while seeking new ways of doing that task. At the same time, the OTA might talk to the client about the emotional challenges associated with not being able to do the task. It might also mean advising an employer on ways to better accommodate an employee following an injury.
Because of the diversity of treatments, OTs and OTAs can be found in a variety of settings not limited to hospitals and private practices — including school clinics, community centers, nursing facilities and private workplaces. Some OTs and OTAs even to travel to clients’ homes.
Physical Therapy Assistants
Physical therapy begins with a physical therapist (PT) assessing a patient’s mobility and developing an appropriate treatment plan. It is then the job of the physical therapy assistant (PTA) to work with the patient to administer the treatment plan.
Take, for example, our scenario with the patient who is recovering from knee surgery. The PT would determine a series of exercises that would best help her to regain leg strength. The PTA would then educate and work with the patient on performing the prescribed exercises. Along the way, the PTA would report the patient’s progress back to the PT, who might prescribe additional exercises to further the patient’s progress.
Whereas OTAs work in a number of settings, the vast majority of PTAs — about 72% — work in hospitals and private practices, according to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). Additionally, about 28% work part time.
Accreditation, Evaluation and Licensure
Both PTAs and OTAs are required to earn associate’s degrees from accredited programs, with the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) responsible for accrediting OT and OTA degree programs and the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) for PT and PTA degree programs. In addition, both degree programs require students to complete fieldwork.
Most programs take about two years to complete. However, some schools, such as St. Catherine’s Online OTA program, allow students to earn an Associate of Applied Sciences (AAS) in OTA in as few as 16 months.
As with most medical fields, all 50 states require OTAs and PTAs to be licensed to practice, which includes passing an exam. OTAs must take the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT®) and PTAs the National Physical Therapy Exam.
Increasing Demand Means Job Growth for Both Professions
There’s a reason U.S. News & World Report ranked OTA #1 and PTA #4 on its 2017 list of Best Health Care Support Jobs. (Both positions also made it onto their 2017 The 100 Best Jobs list, with OTA taking #12 and PTA #38.)
With an aging Baby Boomer population and a larger insurance pool — among other factors— an increasing number of Americans are turning to physical and occupational therapy. As a result, OTAs and PTAs are in high demand. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics* estimates 2016–2026 job growth at 29% for OTAs and 31% for PTAs — compared to just 7% growth for all occupations averaged for the same 10-year period.
In other words, both are good career choices. It just depends on which is right for you.
Earn Your OTA Degree from St. Catherine in as Few as 16 Months
If you’re considering becoming an occupational therapy assistant, you owe it to yourself to talk to a St. Catherine Admissions Counselor. As the first university in the nation to offer an occupational therapy assistant program, we set the standard by which all OTA programs are judged. With St. Catherine’s Online Occupational Therapy Assistant program, you can be occupational therapy assistant in as few as 16 months.
To learn more about OTAs and our Online OTA program, talk to an Admissions Counselor, or download our free guide, Occupational Therapy Assistant Explained.