If you’ve ever felt called to work in rehabilitative care, one thing is clear: you’re passionate about helping others. What may not be quite as clear is which form of patient therapy you should pursue—occupational therapy or physical therapy?
The essential difference is this: Occupational therapy focuses on aiding the wide range of daily activities in a patient’s life—including task management, social interactions, and job-related duties. Physical therapy focuses on the patient’s range of movement and on performing activities without pain.
Because occupational therapists and physical therapists both strive to support patients as they regain their gross and fine motor skills, work toward optimal functioning, and improve the quality of their lives, it can be tough to determine which specialty to choose. That said, the professions do vary in their therapeutic scope and the kinds of long-term goals each practitioner will set for patients.
To make headway on your path to healing others, read on below. We’ll unpack the distinct therapies involved in OT and PT, what it takes to go into each field, and some nuts-and-bolts information on earning potential and licensing requirements.
Occupational Therapy 101
Just as the road to recovery looks different for everyone, rehabilitative therapies can be diverse, distinctive, and focused on particular aspects of healing. With that in mind, let’s consider the unique ways that occupational therapy works to improve patients’ lives.
What is occupational therapy?
Occupational therapy aims to help patients with injuries, medical conditions, and disabilities participate in daily life through the therapeutic practice of everyday activities. Occupational therapists work with patients of all ages, abilities, and conditions to help them establish and improve the skills they need to get back to work (and leisure, too).
Occupational therapy seeks to help patients regain their ability to perform the everyday tasks and activities (“occupations”) that are important to them, whether those functions relate to:
- Social interaction
While this therapy often involves physical functioning and movement-related therapies, it centers on the holistic treatment of the patient and takes care to acknowledge and treat mental health, developmental, and cognitive challenges.
Focusing on the entire individual—their physical, mental, and social circumstances—occupational therapy aims to:
- Increase independence
- Optimize for safety and efficacy concerning daily tasks
- Educate caregivers on how to help patients
What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?
In line with the expansive, holistic scope of occupational therapy, occupational therapists (OTs) take an individualized approach to treat the whole person—taking stock of the patient’s medical history and everyday life to maximize their safety, independence, and success.
For an occupational therapist, a day’s work might include modifying spaces like classrooms and work environments or assisting with life skills like budgeting, using public facilities, and completing household chores.
OTs always strive to understand the entire set of goals, circumstances, and interactions that comprise the totality of their patient’s life. In service of the personalized and extensive support that they provide, an occupational therapist’s job duties include:
- Observation and review – OTs review patients’ medical histories, ask them about their health and lives, and observe them as they perform everyday tasks.
- Evaluation and treatment – After evaluating a patient’s needs, circumstances, and condition, OTs develop a treatment plans focused on specific goals and activities.
- Assistance and education – OTs provide task-specific assistance and demonstrate exercises and techniques for managing long-term and chronic conditions.
- Home and caregiver support – To establish long-term support, OTs conduct evaluations of their patient’s home and workplace, recommending improvements, equipment, and ways to help accommodate their patient’s needs.
- Assessment and record-keeping – OTs record and evaluate their patient’s progress and report their findings to physicians and insurance providers.
Where Do Occupational Therapists Work?
While occupational therapy involves more than just exercise and movement, occupational therapists tend to work on their feet and should anticipate a level of physicality in their work—whether through demonstrating exercises or manipulating heavy equipment.
So, where do occupational therapists work? Well, prospective OTs should also anticipate a fairly fluid definition of “the office.” Given the diversity of their patients, occupational therapists work in a variety of settings and may find themselves traveling between the following common settings:
- Nursing care facilities
How Do You Become an OT?
Becoming an occupational therapist requires years of dedicated study and in-field practice. Other than preparing for the total cost of how much occupational therapy education is, to join the ranks of this admirable profession, you’ll need:
- A bachelor’s degree
- An MOT or OTD accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education
- At least 24 weeks of supervised fieldwork
- A passing score on the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT)
- A license to practice (varies by state)
How long does it take to become an OT? That depends.
Through a dual degree program that combines an undergraduate degree with a master’s coursework, you can become an OT in as few as five years.
If you’re considering post-grad options, note that most accredited master’s programs will take two to three years for completion, while doctorates can span three and a half years.
How Much Will You Make as an Occupational Therapist?
Perhaps occupational therapy seems like fulfilling work that uniquely connects to your flexibility, organizational skills, and patience. But will it cover your financial needs and provide lasting security?
To get a clear sense of whether you should pursue occupational therapy, it will pay off to consider the earning potential of the role. So, does an occupational therapist have a higher salary?
Here’s occupational therapy by the numbers:
- $85,570 – The median annual wage for occupational therapists as of May 2021, more than double the national median for all workers of $45,760
- 17% – The percent at which the profession is projected to grow by 2030
Physical Therapy 101
Physical therapy is often in order after surgery, injury, or illness weakens or incapacitates a patient and can help mitigate and prevent discomfort associated with conditions including:
- Neurological disorders (Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis)
Through targeted treatments aimed to address a patient’s personal needs and goals, physical therapy strives to decrease pain, improve muscle strength and motion, and provide pathways for maintaining fitness and physical health.
What Does a Physical Therapist Do?
Honing in on their patient’s unique sets of goals and restraints, physical therapists craft personalized hands-on therapy plans that may cover:
- Exercise and stretching
- Electrical stimulation
- Hot and cold pressure
Other critical patient care responsibilities that fall under the umbrella of a physical therapist’s duties include the careful review of patient medical records, the diagnosis of patients via movements and functions, and the written evaluation and assessment of the patient’s progress.
In addition to developing individualized therapy plans, PTs must regularly exercise their communication skills—updating patients, family, and the rest of their healthcare team on expected outcomes, proper techniques, and modifications to the treatment plan. As a physical therapist, you can even specialize in a certain area to build on your expertise.
Where Do Physical Therapists Work?
It’s probably not a surprise that the work of physical therapists can be physical in nature. Given the exertion and motion inherent in their practice, most PTs work in spaces that accommodate exercise, movement, and equipment, including large health and fitness centers.
While OTs may bounce around homes, offices, and hospitals based on their therapeutic goals for the patient or their specialties, PTs will typically find their version of an “office” in medical settings or facilities like:
- Private practices
- Nursing homes
How Do You Become a PT?
Becoming a physical therapist takes passion and dedication. It also requires time and effort—including at least three years of graduate study, supervised clinical work, and a passing score on the national boards.
Here’s everything you’ll need to have under your belt to enter this profession:
- A bachelor’s degree with prerequisite coursework in anatomy, chemistry, and physics
- A Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education
- A passing score on the National Physical Therapy Examination
- A license to practice (varies by state)
How Much Will You Make as a PT?
If you’re motivated by the prospect of helping patients achieve increased mobility and strength, you might find a fulfilling career in physical therapy. But how much can you expect to make after you graduate from DPT school? Is PT a more lucrative field than other rehabilitative therapies?
When it comes to occupational therapy vs physical therapy salary, PTs tend to outearn their fellow therapists. Here’s a brief rundown:
- $95,620 – The median annual wage for PTs as of May 2021
- $92,920– The average salary earned by PTs in 2021
- 21% – The percent at which the profession is projected to grow by 2030
If you’re conflicted about which form of patient care or degree program to pursue, rest assured that when it comes to occupational therapist vs. physical therapist jobs, both sectors anticipate growth. That said, if future earning potential weighs heavily on your decision process, it’s worth remembering that PT has a slight edge when it comes to the median and average salary.
How to Pick the Right Practice
Once you’ve become familiar with what each therapy entails, what it takes to become a PT or OT, and the differences between an occupational therapist’s vs. a physical therapist’s salary, you might feel more equipped to determine which path is right for you.
But if you’re still weighing your options, it might be helpful to reflect on your interests and skills.
You might consider a career in physical therapy if:
- You want to help patients regain their strength and mobility
- You’re interested in developing personalized exercise plans
- You’re passionate about exercise science, physics, and anatomy
Occupational therapy might make a better fit if:
- You’re interested in holistic therapies
- You want to help patients with a range of everyday activities, not just their movements
- You’re passionate about making schools, workplaces, and social settings more accessible
Pursue Your Patient Care Passion at USAHS
Whether you feel called to enroll in a physical therapy program or occupational therapy program, one thing is guaranteed: you’re going to make a world of difference in your patients’ lives. Why not begin this important journey today?
At the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences, you can pursue your passion for patient care through our Master of Occupational Therapy, Doctor of Occupational Therapy, Post- Professional Doctor of Occupational Therapy, and Doctor of Physical Therapy programs.
No matter which discipline you choose, you’ll find an immersive, energized community dedicated to innovating and empowering the field of patient care. As they strive to make a positive impact in their communities, our collaborative cohorts enjoy blended learning, diverse fieldwork, and an alumni network that’s more than 10,000 strong. Join their ranks today at one of our five destination campuses.
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Therapists. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/mobile/occupational-therapists.htm
WebMD. Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy. https://www.webmd.com/pain-management/occupational-therapy-versus-physical-therapy
Healthline. Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy: What You Need to Know. https://www.healthline.com/health/occupational-therapy-vs-physical-therapy
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Physical Therapists. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physical-therapists.htm
U.S. News. Physical Therapist. https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/physical-therapist/salary
Doctor of Physical Therapy Candidacy Program (Launched Fall 2020) – Dallas Campus
|Effective April 28, 2020, the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences’ Doctor of Physical Therapy program at the Dallas, Texas campus has been granted Candidate for Accreditation status by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), 3030 Potomac Ave., Suite 100, Alexandria, VA, 22305-3085; phone: 703-706-3245; email: [email protected]). If needing to contact the program/institution directly, please call or email Dr. Thomas P. Werner at 469-498-5740 or [email protected].
Candidate for Accreditation is an accreditation status of affiliation with the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education that indicates the program may matriculate students in technical/professional courses. Achievement of Candidate for Accreditation status does not assure that the program will be granted Initial Accreditation.