How do they differ?
The layperson may use the professions of occupational therapy and physical therapy interchangeably. However, there are differences. The term occupation may also create confusion. It is logical to assume that this type of therapy only refers to those injured at work. One may think of the physical demands of construction or factory worker who needs treatment to resume the duties of their job. This assumption is incorrect. Occupational therapy applies to anyone whose injury prevents him or her from performing everyday tasks. Therefore, the elderly at home and the electrician may both require the services of an occupational therapist (OT).
Then, what is a physical therapist? This person works on a specific part of the body to increase mobility, regain strength, or manage a debilitation. For example, after knee surgery, a physical therapist (PT) works with the patient/client to improve the function of the knee. The methods may involve resistance exercises, stretches, heat therapy, and massage to rehabilitate the affected joint.
There are instances where the patient may need a PT and an OT. A person returning home from the hospital from a severe injury may require physical therapy for the injured body parts. The OT may also visit the patient’s home to see what changes need to be done to facilitate daily activities due to temporary or permanent physical limitations.
Both professions can begin with an Associate’s degree from an accredited program. The respective organizations are the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) and the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). Your degree in OT or PT, at this level, takes two years at a local community college, junior college, or online. Graduates with an Associate degree will be eligible to perform as assistants once they pass their state license.
A significant change in your path to becoming a licensed Physical Therapist is the degree. The Master of Physical Therapy and the Master of Science in Physical Therapy are no longer available. The American Physical Therapy Association states that PTs must have their Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) to be eligible for state licensure. You may still work as an assistant or aide in the profession. However, you cannot practice as a bona fide PT.
There is a Bachelor of Science in Pre-Physical Therapy that qualifies graduates to pursue a Master’s or doctoral (professional) degree. At the master’s level, you may opt for a Master of Science in Rehabilitation Science, or Health and Human Performance, as examples.
There is a significant difference in the degree requirement for OTs. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) decided on October 17, 2018, to withhold the doctoral mandate for entry-level positions in OT. The AOTA and ACOTE agree on this matter. Both agencies do prefer that OTs have a doctoral. However, it is not required to become a licensed OT. The typical Master of Science in OT takes between 2 and 2.5 years full-time.
Licensure for an OT is not the same as certification. An Associate’s degree makes you eligible for certification with the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). Graduates at this level sit for the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) exam. Students with a master’s or doctorate sit for the Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR) exam. The exam consists of multiple choice, scenario-based, and clinical simulation test questions. You have four hours to complete the 170-question OTR examination.
Certification must precede your application for state licensure as an OT.
The COTA exam has testing centers worldwide. You need to complete the online application at the NBCOT site, which includes a $515 fee. The exam committee may ask for your school transcripts for eligibility. Once approved for the exam, you have four hours to finish the test. Breaks are permissible, but the clock keeps ticking. There are 200 items/questions divided into three parts. The maximum points are 600 with 450 being a pass. Results are available online.
Physical Therapists, in contrast, do not require certification as a prerequisite for state licensure. The profession does have voluntary specialty certifications through the American Board of Physical Therapist Specialties (ABPTS). Presently, there are nine areas for board-certification:
- Women’s Health
- Clinical Electrophysiology
Employment and Salary
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that OTs had a median wage of $83,200 with a Master’s degree in 2017. The expected job growth over the next ten years is 24% or the change in 31,300 jobs.
PTs fare even better according to the BLS. They had a median salary of $86,850 with a doctoral degree in 2017. Their projected job growth is 28% or 67,100 jobs from 2016 to 2026.