Both physical therapy and occupational therapy are disciplines within the rehabilitative sciences in which therapists work hands-on with clients—leading many people to assume they are interchangeable. However, PT and OT are quite distinct professions. If you are considering a career in rehabilitative medicine, you need to know what sets these professions apart.
The Key Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy
The key difference is that occupational therapists help patients regain or improve their ability to perform everyday tasks on their own, and physical therapists help patients regain their range of motion and manage their pain.
While both OTs and PTs help clients who are recovering from injuries, occupational therapists also work with people who have cognitive or developmental disabilities that affect their motor skills, behavior, or emotions. For example, if you are having trouble getting dressed because of motor issues post-stroke, you would go to occupational therapy. If you need help regaining your range of motion in a shoulder after surgery (so you can get dressed on your own and eventually get back to playing tennis), you would go to physical therapy.
Other Differences Between OT and PT
But the differences between OT and PT go beyond which patient problems they address. Below, we outline the differences in job duties, educational requirements, specialties, and job outlooks for each profession.
The skill sets of physical and occupational therapists overlap in several areas. In fact, several physical therapy techniques are used in occupational therapy, and vice versa. Because physical therapists work primarily with people recovering from anatomical injuries, they use exercises, massages, and other techniques to restore function, prevent disability, and reduce pain in patients. Their responsibilities include:
- Consulting with patients to learn about their physical condition and symptoms
- Performing physical therapy evaluations according to APTA standards
- Developing a treatment plan for patients
- Teaching patients therapeutic exercise techniques
- Promoting healing through massage or stimulation
- Assisting patients with the use of equipment
- Maintaining patient records
- Keeping track of patient goals and progress to evaluate mobility and strength
- Offering in-home exercises and treatment options
While occupational therapists focus on helping patients recover from physical injuries, their main focus is on activities of daily living (ADLs), such as brushing teeth, doing laundry, etc. OTs develop plans to help patients accomplish daily tasks in an easier or less painful way. Their responsibilities include:
- Assessing the patient’s functional abilities, including sensory, cognitive, emotional, and physical elements
- Developing a treatment plan
- Helping the patient achieve goals set in the treatment plan
- Creating and using assistive technology to promote independence in daily activities
- Helping patients improve the motor skills needed for meaningful daily tasks, such as getting dressed or taking a shower
- Working with patients who have memory loss or other cognitive issues
- Providing home exercises for patients and recommendations for continued therapy
Physical therapists and occupational therapists can work in a variety of settings, including acute care, inpatient and outpatient settings, long-term care, schools, home health environments, and skilled nursing facilities. While the job duties of these professions do differ, physical therapists and occupational therapists often collaborate on teams.
In order to become a physical therapist, you need to earn a bachelor’s degree, preferably in a health-related field. Then you need to attend graduate school to earn your Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. DPT programs typically take about three years to complete; however, time to completion can vary, depending on the program and other factors. You will need to pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy to become a licensed physical therapist in your state after obtaining your degree from an accredited program.
To become an occupational therapist, you must first earn your bachelor’s degree in a health-related field; then, you need to earn at least a Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) degree. MOT programs typically take around two years to complete, but again, time to completion can vary. You will then need to pass the National Board of Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) examination to practice in your state. If you want to deepen your knowledge of the field and further your career opportunities, you can opt to earn your Doctor of Occupational Therapy instead of a master’s.
Specialties & certifications
Once you are licensed, you can become certified in a specialty area. Many physical and occupational therapists specialize in one or more areas over the course of their careers. Typically it’s necessary to earn a certificate and meet other eligibility requirements.
The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) offer board certification in several areas for physical therapists and occupational therapists. Below are popular specializations and certifications for both professions.
|Physical Therapy Specialties||Occupational Therapy Specialties|
|Cardiovascular & Pulmonary Certified Specialist (CCS)||Physical Rehabilitation (BCPR)|
|Clinical Electrophysiologic Certified Specialist (ECS)||Driving and Community Mobility (SCDCM or SCDCM-A)|
|Geriatric Certified Specialist (GCS)||Gerontology (BCG)|
|Neurologic Certified Specialist (NCS)||Environmental Modification (SCEM or SCEM-A)|
|Orthopedic Certified Specialist (OCS)||Feeding, Eating, and Swallowing (SCFES or SCFES-A)|
|Pediatric Certified Specialist (PCS)||Pediatrics (BCP)|
|Sports Certified Specialist (SCS)||Low Vision (SCLV or SCLV-A)|
|Women’s Health Certified Specialist (WCS)||Mental Health (BCMH)|
Salary & job outlook
Both professions have a healthy median salary and are expected to enjoy strong job growth within the next 10 years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupational therapy is projected to see 18% job growth from 2018 to 2028. Similarly, physical therapy has a projected job growth rate of 22% from 2018 to 2028.
Bureau of Labor Statistics (1) (2) | Glassdoor (1) (2)