Becoming an OTA vs. PTA: 3 Differences Between the Fields

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OTA working with child

If you love helping people live more fulfilling lives, you might be considering a career in healthcare. If you’re weighing becoming an OTA vs. PTA, you’ve come to the right place. Both fields have plenty of benefits, and each has its own distinct appeals. In this blog, we’ll compare what each field has to offer — and how to determine which one is the right fit for you. Here are three differences between the professions:

1. Treatment goals focus on different outcomes

Both occupational therapy and physical therapy are hands-on fields that aim to help people with their movement. However, the types of exercises and the intended outcome of treatment between the professions vary. 

Physical therapy generally uses exercise to help patients recover from injuries or illnesses that have limited their ability to move. PTAs will work with their patients on different movements that can help them regain range of motion on specific areas of the body. They also help train for strength and flexibility or implement motions that improve balance and coordination and aim to relieve pain.

While occupational therapy (OT) also helps people, this field takes a little bit of a different approach. OT focuses on helping people master skills or adapt to circumstances that would otherwise inhibit them from living life independently.

Whether the patient is dealing with an injury or illness that requires accommodations or perhaps the patient has a developmental or physical limitation, occupational therapy can help. Patients can range from adults to children and include people who are injured, elderly, suffering from mental illness, addiction or disease.

2. OTAs and PTAs perform different duties

The duties of PTAs and OTAs also differ. A day in the life of a PTA and one in the life of an OTA look very different.

PTAs meet with patients and guide them through different exercises planned and advised by the physical therapist they report to. They’ll also introduce the patient to adaptive equipment like crutches to help them move as they recover or teach them to live with more permanent solutions like prosthetics or wheelchairs.

PTAs can also provide hands-on treatment such as massage therapy and recommend other treatments for their patients.

OTAs, on the other hand, guide patients through performing daily tasks. Similar to a PTA, these plans will be communicated from an overseeing occupational therapist, which are then carried out by the OTA.

While PT is geared toward regaining strength or recovery, OT focuses on building confidence to complete tasks in a manageable and lasting way. OTAs may help people adapt to permanent injuries, such as finding more comfortable ways for a patient with arthritis to do something like tying their shoelaces or helping children with developmental issues gain social skills.

Some duties in the fields may be similar, such as creating a comfortable, sterile and safe environment for patients and offering education so patients understand the logic behind what they’re working toward.

3. Certain skillsets are more valuable in each role

Both fields value communication skills, problem solving and respecting the dignity of patients, center on being uplifting and motivational and need people who have the skill set to do that in a realistic way.

However, PT and OT need people with very different strengths.

Because they may need to lift people and assist in stretches and other movements, PTAs need to be strong enough to easily carry out those duties. If the PTA is required to provide massage services, they need to be skilled and likely certified in that and have the strength and stamina to do it effectively.

PTAs also need to have excellent interpersonal skills and the ability to make patients feel comfortable when they’re attempting potentially uncomfortable movements.

OTAs also need to be encouraging and approachable but in a different way. OTAs deal with a large scope of patients from all walks of life and need to be able to interact with all of them effectively. Like we discussed above, some patients an OTA sees may be nonverbal or have trouble with social situations, but an OTA will still need to evaluate how the patient feels and is responding to treatment. Being perceptive and finding creative ways to communicate are vital skills in occupational therapy.

OTA in nursing home setting

Which is right for you?

Both fields are worthwhile and work hard to help people. If you’re looking for a fulfilling career that offers a flexible schedule and requires creative problem solving, a career as an OTA may be right for you. A career as a PTA will allow you to assist people in regaining movement and recovering; a career as an OTA enables you to help people lead their lives independently and gain skills that improve their quality of life.

A career as an OTA will keep you on your toes; you’ll likely find yourself dealing with a diverse pool of situations and needs. A typical day could have you helping a client through exercises designed to help him regain the motion needed to perform a task, working with children on ways to get the most out of their schooling, and advising an employer on ways to better accommodate an employee following an injury. The scope of the areas you’d play a fundamental role in is wide and exciting.

Because of the diversity of treatments, OTs and OTAs can work in a lot of different settings not limited to hospitals and private practices — including school clinics, community centers, nursing facilities and private workplaces. Some OTs and OTAs even travel to clients’ homes. If you enjoy variety and helping people overcome challenges, you may want to become an OT.

OTA with patient

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 an admissions counselor from the St. Catherine University Online Occupational Therapy Assistant Program. 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 an occupational therapy assistant in as few as 16 months.

Give us a call today, or fill out the form, to talk to an admissions counselor about whether our program is right for you.

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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