Becoming a Therapist: Physical Therapy vs Occupational Therapy

Becoming a Therapist: Physical Therapy vs Occupational Therapy

Infographic created by Progressus Therapy

Becoming A Therapist: The Distinctions Between Physical Therapy And Occupational Therapy

Whether you’re just finishing your undergraduate degree or going back to school after spending time in the workforce, you’ve probably already made many important decisions about how you want to shape your career. One of those decisions may have been entering into the therapy field. If so, you’ve made a good choice. Becoming a physical or occupational therapist gives you the opportunity to become a force for positive change for countless people who need help to put their lives back on track and regain some of their independence. Although many people use the terms interchangeably, there are some substantial differences between physical therapy and occupational therapy. If you’re interested in either one of these challenging and rewarding fields, it’s important that you understand the differences between them so you can make the most informed decision. You’ve already made a number of significant decisions about your career, and this may be one of the most critical.

Understanding the Job

The most obvious way in which physical therapy and occupational therapy deviate from each other is in the types of patients each one typically serves. If you choose to become a physical therapist, for example, you will most likely work with people who are recovering from an injury and are working to regain their full range of movement. Physical therapists also focus a great deal of their attention on helping patients prevent injuries caused by strenuous physical activity, including athletic activity. If you decide to become an occupational therapist, your patients will primarily be people who have developmental or cognitive disabilities that hamper their ability to live independently. An occupational therapist will work with those patients to help them learn how to do more practical tasks, so they can live as independently as possible.

As such, physical and occupational therapists also approach their methodologies in different ways. A physical therapist would begin by diagnosing the patient’s physical limitations and/or pain. Then, the physical therapist would develop a program that includes exercise, massage therapy, lifestyle changes, and other techniques aimed at relieving pain and strengthening the patient’s muscles. On the other hand, occupational therapists identify basic tasks a patient needs help with — such as brushing his or her teeth or preparing meals — and creating a rehabilitation plan to help the patient improve his or her ability to complete those everyday tasks. An occupational therapist may also be involved in helping patients with cognitive and/or memory loss issues.

Understanding the Requirements

If you’re choosing between careers in physical therapy or occupational therapy, it’s important to know the educational and certification path you would need to take for each. Physical therapy, for example, requires the completion of what is typically a three-year program following your bachelor’s degree, although some programs allow for students to enroll directly from high school. These programs generally consist of 80 percent classroom and laboratory work, with the rest being clinical experience outside of the classroom. Students then must complete the National Physical Therapy exam, although there may be additional requirements depending on the state.

Students working to become occupational therapists must start with a bachelor’s degree in a related field such as biology or health science. From there, they must complete what is normally a two-year program that must be approved by the American Occupational Therapy Association, which usually includes 16 weeks of field study. At the completion of their studies, students must pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapy exam and any additional requirements, depending on their state.

Understanding the Outlook

No matter if a student chooses to enter physical therapy or occupational therapy, the outlook is bright. Physical therapists have a median income of more than $85,000 per year, and there is expected job growth of 34 percent between now and 2024. For occupational therapists, the median income is more than $81,000, with 27 percent job growth expected by 2024.

Choosing a career in either physical therapy or occupational therapy will open significant opportunities for you no matter which one you choose. However, make sure that the choice you make is the right one for you.

Lisa Orlando

Lisa Orlando is Vice President, Marketing, Communications and Early Intervention at Progressus Therapy, a provider of employment and professional development for therapists. The company connects qualified candidates with job opportunities across the United States.