The Difference Between an Occupational Therapy Assistant & a Physical Therapy Assistant

by Beth Greenwood

    Occupational therapy and physical therapy have both similarities and differences. These two professions focus on helping people recover from injury and illness or to manage disabilities. They may even use some of the same techniques. However, occupational therapy uses everyday activities such as dressing, eating or writing as therapeutic techniques, while physical therapy uses exercises such as stretching, walking or lifting weights. Occupational therapy assistants and physical therapy assistants -- also called OTAs and PTAs -- support occupational therapists and physical therapists in this important work.

    Occupational therapists and physical therapists are highly educated professionals who assess patients and develop treatment plans to help the patients meet goals through therapy. OTAs and PTAs implement some components of these plans. OTAs and PTAs must work under the supervision of the more qualified therapists, who are responsible for the services provided by the OTAs and PTAs. For example, an occupational therapist or physical therapist can make a diagnosis, but neither an OTA nor a PTA is authorized to diagnose.

    OTAs generally have an associate degree. The training program must be accredited for an OTA to become licensed. These programs, usually found in community colleges or technical-vocational schools, require two full years of study. Typical courses include anatomy, biology, psychology, pediatric health and the use of assistive devices. In addition, the OTA spends time in a clinical setting that provides hands-on experience under the supervision of an instructor or occupational therapist. Most states require OTAs to be licensed, and certification is also available.

    PTAs study topics similar to those in an OTA program, such as algebra, English, anatomy, physiology and psychology. They also learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation techniques. Some states require PTAs to be licensed, and most states require that they graduate from an accredited PTA program with an associate degree. PTA programs are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. In addition to their coursework, PTAs spend time in clinical settings where they learn to perform the basic skills of their occupation.

    To an observer, the work of OTAs and PTAs does look similar. Either might help a patient learn how to use a walker, teach stretches or exercises or perform massage. OTAs, however, are more likely to lead children with developmental disabilities in play activities to promote coordination. OTAs teach the use of assistive tools, such as specially designed eating utensils, to help a patient feed herself after a stroke. PTAs would be more likely to teach a patient to walk with a cane or perform exercises to strengthen muscles. The focus in occupational therapy is to help patients gain or regain skills that will help them be more independent, while the focus in physical therapy is to improve mobility and decrease pain.

    OTAs and PTAs earn similar wages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The average annual wage for OTAs in 2011 was $52,150, and for PTAs it was $51,110. Most OTAs and PTAs worked in the offices of other health practitioners in 2011, where their wages were $53,750 and $49,430, respectively. OTAs were more likely to work in nursing care facilities than general medical-surgical hospitals, while the work setting was reversed for PTAS, with more than twice as many PTAs in general medical-surgical hospitals. OTAs and PTAs also work in home-care settings.

    About the Author

    Beth Greenwood is a registered nurse and writer. She served as a columnist for the Tides Foundation's Community Clinic Voice on quality improvement and now contributes to various websites. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College and is a graduate of the California HealthCare Foundation Health Care Leadership Program.

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