What is the Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy?

Staff Writer
Apr 19, 2022 | 22 min read

If you’re considering a career in occupational therapy (OT) or physical therapy (PT), you may be wondering exactly what the difference is between these two professions. That’s totally understandable, as these two healthcare fields share a lot in common and are often confused with one another.

OT vs PT

Both professions provide vital, hands-on rehabilitative work to help clients and patients perform daily tasks with optimal independence and quality of life. Additionally, both require many of the same skills, offer competitive salaries, and enjoy strong job outlooks. However, OT and PT take different approaches to how they improve people’s lives. So, if you’re interested in pursuing one of these career paths, it may be helpful for you to understand some of these key distinctions first.

The Difference

The difference between OT and PT is that OT focuses on improving a client’s ability to perform everyday activities, while PT focuses specifically on improving a patient’s ability to perform body movements and function.

OT takes a more holistic approach, with the overall goal of helping clients perform daily activities with the highest degree of independence possible. OT practitioners treat clients who are recovering from injuries or have developmental or cognitive disabilities. Their approach may include physical exercise, wellness promotion, therapeutic adaptations, and modifications to the client’s home and work environments. For someone recovering from a stroke, an occupational therapist might develop treatments to help the client manage daily activities like eating, bathing, and getting dressed.

PT is the physical rehabilitation of people recovering from injuries or disease, with physical therapists treating the patient’s actual impairment. Physical therapists are trained extensively in body mechanics and use treatment techniques that are designed to reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability. For someone recovering from a stroke, a physical therapist might develop exercises to strengthen the patient’s muscles for walking, standing, and other movements.

1. Job Duties

To work in OT or PT, you can choose to become either an occupational therapist (OT), an occupational therapy assistant (OTA), a physical therapist (PT), or physical therapy assistant (PTA). While each role has different educational and licensure requirements, the job responsibilities listed below give a better sense of what day-to-day duties could look like in each position, so you can choose the career path that’s right for you.

Occupational Therapist

  • Evaluates the client’s condition and treatment needs.
  • Develops individualized treatment plans for clients.
  • Helps clients perform daily tasks, practice self-care, and advises on adaptive equipment.
  • Records and assesses client progress.
  • Evaluates client’s home and/or workplace to identify potential improvements, and educates family members and employers on the recommended adjustments.

Occupational Therapy Assistant

  • Collaborates with OTs to help clients develop and recover skills for completing activities of daily living.
  • Implements treatment programs created by OTs (including activities, exercises, and training on adaptive equipment).
  • Tracks client progress and reports to the OT.
  • Provides guidance to family members, caregivers, and other healthcare providers on how they can best support the client’s treatment program.
  • Maintains treatment areas and sets up therapy equipment.

Physical Therapist

  • Diagnoses physical problems caused by injury or illness.
  • Develops individualized treatment plans for patients.
  • Utilizes exercises, stretching, hands-on therapy, and equipment to help increase mobility, ease pain, and facilitate improved patient health.
  • Maintains records and tracks patient’s goals and progress.
  • Creates wellness programs aimed at preventing injury.
  • Educate patients about the recovery process.

Physical Therapy Assistant

  • Provides PT services under the direction and supervision of a PT.
  • Implements treatment plans created with PTs (including stretching, strength training, exercises, and use of equipment).
  • Tracks and reports patient progress before, during, and after therapy.
  • Maintains treatment areas and sets up therapy equipment.

2. Education & Job Requirements

Occupational Therapist

To become an OT, you’ll need to first earn a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master’s degree in OT (which takes between 2-3 years) or a doctorate in OT (which takes about three years). You’ll also need to pass the NBCOT exam and apply for licensure in your state.

Occupational Therapy Assistant

To become an OTA, you’ll need to first earn an associate’s degree, successfully pass the NBCOT exam, and obtain a license to practice as an OTA in the state where you plan to work. Keep in mind that licensing requirements and procedures for this position vary slightly by state, so be sure to consult with your state’s OT regulatory agency for specific licensure requirements.

If a career as an OTA sounds like a good fit for you, consider taking Joyce’s fully accredited OTA program. With clinical practice, classroom instruction, and rigorous coursework, you can graduate and start a career as a qualified OTA in less than 20 months.

Physical Therapist

To become a PT, you must first earn a bachelor’s degree, followed by a professional degree—usually a doctorate in physical therapy (which takes about three years to complete). Then, you must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) and become licensed in the state where you plan to work.

Physical Therapy Assistant

To become a PTA, you’ll first need to earn an associate’s degree and then pass the NPTE. Depending on the licensing requirements of the state, you may also need to pass a state examination and obtain CPR and First Aid certification.

3. Salary

Occupational Therapists

Employment of OTs is projected to grow by 17% from 2020-2030, much faster than the average for all occupations. As of May 2020, the median annual wage for OTs was $86,280.

Occupational Therapy Assistants

Overall employment of OTAs is projected to grow by 34% from 2020-2030. As of May 2020, the median annual wage for OTAs was $62,940.

Physical Therapists

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of PTs is projected to grow by 21% from 2020-2030. As of May 2020, the median annual pay for PTs in the U.S. was $91,010.

Physical Therapy Assistants

Overall employment of PTAs is projected to grow by 32% from 2020-2030. As of May 2020, the median annual wage for PTAs was $59,770.

4. Specialties

Occupational Therapy

If OT sounds like a better fit for you, both OTs and OTAs can receive AOTA advanced certifications in:

  • Driving and Community Mobility
  • Environmental Modification
  • Feeding, Eating, and Swallowing
  • Low Vision
  • School Systems
  • Gerontology
  • Mental Health
  • Pediatrics
  • Physical Rehabilitation
  • Physical Therapy

Physical Therapy

If you’re interested in pursuing a specialty within the PT field, PTs can receive APTA Specialist Certification in:

  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
  • Clinical Electrophysiology
  • Geriatrics
  • Neurology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Women’s Health
  • Oncology

By diving into detail about the responsibilities and requirements for each position, we hope that we’ve clarified the differences between these two fields and given you the information you need to decide which career path might be the best fit for you.

Learn more about Joyce’s OTA program.

 

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