Comparing Careers in Occupational and Physical Therapy

August 21st, 2014 by

Physical or Occupational Therapy CareersBoth occupational therapists and physical therapists are tasked with helping patients improve their physical fitness, flexibility and strength so that they can tackle a range of daily tasks. However, the two careers are also very different in a number of ways.

If you want to work directly with patients in order to help them regain mobility and strength, then working as either an occupational therapist or a physical therapist can be a smart option.

Before enrolling into a program for either, however, it is important to get to know how the two careers differ and how they are the same, which can help you pick the perfect position for your future education and employment.

The Role of an Occupational Therapist

An occupational therapist works with patients who are injured, sick or disabled in some way. Occupational therapists want to help their patients become comfortable completing basic everyday tasks like eating, bathing and getting around their home easily and without pain or discomfort.

To accomplish this task, occupational therapists may use involve aids on the person or in the home that can make life easier. For example, an occupational therapist may outfit someone with a knee brace to make walking easier, remove potential hazards in an elderly person’s new home to prevent any future falls or modify classroom desks so that children with disabilities can sit comfortably when attending school.

Occupational therapists may also lead stretches with patients, help them to understand any new equipment and offer suggestions on how patients can lead more mobile and comfortable lives.

The Role of a Physical Therapist

In many ways, the role of a physical therapist is similar to that of an occupational therapist. However, a physical therapist often works with patients who were involved in accidents or sports injuries.

These physical issues are often short-lived, and they can be overcome completely with time and physical therapy. Some of the daily tasks of a physical therapist might include meeting with new patients and getting familiar with their medical history, creating goals and plans for their patients’ rehabilitation and using tools like exercise and stretches to strengthen problem areas and repair weak muscles.

Many physical therapists focus on the physical aspects of their patients rather than their environments, and they can rely on accupressure, massage, ice or heat treatments and weight-bearing machines to achieve the goals and mobility of their patients.

Where Occupational Therapists Work

Occupational therapists can work in a variety of different environments depending on the kind of patients they serve as well as their area of expertise.

Very few occupational therapists run their own private practices, but they may work in health centers along with other medical professionals who offer a holistic look at rehabilitation and health. The biggest percentage of occupational therapists work in hospitals to help patients after surgery or to be onsite when other doctors make referrals for their patients.

More than a quarter of licensed occupational therapists in the country also work with specific populations, such as children or seniors, and are employed full time by either a school board, a nursing home, a college campus or an assisted living facility.

Since occupational therapists may need to see office environments, homes or schools in order to recommend changes for patients, they often spend at least part of their working time in transit and visiting various locations in the area.

Where Physical Therapists Work

Roughly one-third of physical therapists work in private practices. They may own and operate their own businesses, or they may work for a larger health center that includes occupational or speech therapists as well.

In these examples, physical therapists have a lot of autonomy when it comes to their work and can pick and choose patients as well as their daily schedules. However, almost as many physical therapists work in hospitals with patients recovering from surgery or an accident. Finally, some physical therapists may find work in home health care services, which requires a lot of travel, or nursing homes and residential care facilities.

Typical Salaries and Job Outlook for Occupational Therapists

The average salary for an occupational therapist in the United States is $75,400. Those occupational therapists who are able to command the highest salaries in the industry, often well over $100,000, tend to work for upscale nursing home and assisted living facilities.

The lowest wages in the industry tend to go toward those occupational therapists who are employed in schools. Of course, things like experience, specialty and area of residence can all play a part in the salary for this position.

As for job outlook, there is a 29 percent growth predicted for occupational therapists over the next decade. This is a tremendous upward prediction that means greater job security and more career opportunities for new graduates.

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Typical Salaries and Job Outlook for Physical Therapists

The typical salary for a physical therapist in the United States is $79,860, which is very similar to the salary of an occupational therapist. The best-paying positions for physical therapists are typically private office jobs where they are able to earn a certain amount for each patient visit that they complete. Hospital and nursing home positions are typically salaried, which may be capped depending on location or experience level. Just like for occupational therapists, physical therapists can expect to see a tremendous leap in demand over the next decade, which can amount to roughly 36 percent more jobs than there are today in the field.

Becoming an Occupational Therapist

To accurately compare the positions of occupational therapist and physical therapist, it is important to get a clear picture of the education and training that both require.

To become an occupational therapist, the minimum education you need includes a bachelor’s degree in a science or medical subject and a master’s degree in occupational therapy.

Beyond just education, occupational therapists need to pass an exam from the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapists and then take continuing education classes to keep their certification.

Becoming a Physical Therapist

Just like in occupational therapy, the path to becoming a physical therapist starts with a four-year bachelor’s degree. From there, students will need to apply to one of the more than 200 places where a DPT, or Doctor of Physical Therapy, is offered.

This program typically takes three years to complete, and it includes courses in things like kinesiology, biomechanics and pharmacology.

After graduating with a DPT, aspiring physical therapists will need to complete a clinical residency and get licensed by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy before they can become official physical therapists in the state of their choosing.

If you want to work directly with patients and help them to become healthier, stronger, more flexible and more capable, then working as either a physical therapist or an occupational therapist can be a rewarding position both financially and emotionally.

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About the Author:

Sandy Davis

Sandy Davis is a long-time educator who holds a Master’s Degree in Education, having taught English, writing, and communication on the secondary and college levels. With ten years of experience in blogging, social media and content management, she is a freelance writer and content marketing specialist for a diverse range of clients.

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