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OTA vs. PTA: Career Differences to Consider

Woman working with her patient to stretch

When you’re interested in helping rehabilitate people after injuries or illnesses, physical therapy and occupational therapy are good career paths to consider. Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) and occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) play valuable roles in helping patients improve their quality of life. However, these two careers have notable differences.

Should you consider becoming an OTA or a PTA? That depends on the kind of assistance you’re interested in providing and your overall career goals. The following information on these two career options can help you choose.

What Is an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

An occupational therapy assistant (OTA) helps patients learn to do everyday tasks so that they can live independently or return to work after an injury or illness. These assistants also help adults or children who need to adapt to long-term changes in the way they perform tasks due to a disability or chronic medical condition.

OTAs help occupational therapists with certain job duties, such as adjusting treatment plans as needed. The work they do is carried out under the supervision of an occupational therapist. While some of the job duties OTAs handle are the same as an occupational therapist’s, they don’t have the same level of responsibility or authority. OTAs might also be expected to perform observational or administrative tasks as needed.

OTA vs. Occupational Therapist

How do OTAs differ from occupational therapists? Knowing more about the differences between these careers can help you understand the scope of your role as an OTA if you choose this career path.

Occupational therapists oversee the evaluation of patients and develop a treatment plan based on their needs. This might involve helping an older adult learn to do everyday tasks in order to continue living independently or helping a child learn to perform certain tasks if they have a disability. These therapists might also create treatment plans for patients who need to learn how to perform tasks again following a severe injury or illness.

When an occupational therapist creates a treatment plan, OTAs help carry out duties based on this plan. OTAs monitor patients during treatment and work with occupational therapists to make changes to treatment plans when necessary.

What Is a Physical Therapist Assistant?

A physical therapist assistant (PTA) helps physical therapists implement treatment plans for patients. PTAs can work with patients of all ages. These assistants help patients manage pain caused by injuries or medical conditions, regain mobility, and improve coordination. For example, PTAs might help an adult regain movement in their leg if they sustain a severe injury in a car accident.

PTAs are also responsible for observing patients during therapy, assisting patients with performing specific exercises, and using different techniques, such as stretching, to help patients improve their range of motion. PTAs provide family members with education on a patient’s treatment plan if needed and use equipment to help patients move around. These assistants might also prepare treatment areas, set up equipment, and handle administrative tasks.

PTA vs. Physical Therapist

What is the difference between a PTA and a physical therapist (PT)? A PT is responsible for creating a treatment plan for patients based on an evaluation of their condition. For example, a PT might come up with a treatment plan for a patient who is experiencing lower back pain due to a spinal injury or for an elderly patient who has severe joint pain due to arthritis.

PTAs are not responsible for coming up with treatment plans, but they’re expected to help PTs carry out the exercises and other strategies that are part of these plans. PTAs can also provide PTs with feedback on how patients are doing and help determine if any changes need to be made to an existing treatment plan.

OTA vs. PTA Differences

Whether you should consider becoming an OTA or a PTA depends on where your career interests lie and how you want to help patients. Going over the main differences between these two career options can help you compare them and decide which career path might be better for you.

Goals

The goals of PTAs and OTAs both involve assisting patients and therapists. PTAs focus on helping patients regain movement or mobility and manage pain, while OTAs focus on helping patients learn or relearn to do daily activities. Both careers involve helping therapists carry out treatment plans and helping patients achieve their goals. With OTAs, patient goals might involve being able to do daily tasks to live independently or learning to do everyday tasks in order to go back to work after being injured or ill. With PTAs, patient goals might involve being able to walk, bend, and do other simpler movements after an injury or illness.

Patients

Both OTAs and PTAs can work with a wide range of patients, including pediatric patients, elderly patients, and patients with certain health conditions or injuries, such as spinal injuries or brain injuries. OTAs and PTAs need to have strong interpersonal skills, a lot of compassion, and stamina to do their jobs. These roles often involve working with patients who are in pain, which can make it difficult for them to perform certain exercises or movements.

The ways in which they help these patients differ. OTAs focus on helping patients with motor skills and other skills needed to perform everyday tasks. PTAs focus on helping patients move around and do certain physical movements to regain mobility.

Daily Tasks

The types of daily tasks OTAs and PTAs perform have some similarities and differences. Their daily tasks often involve working with a physical therapist or occupational therapist to implement or modify treatment plans. In both careers, daily tasks involve observing patients to monitor their progress throughout treatment. They also assist patients with exercises, prepare and set up therapy equipment, and clean treatment areas. OTAs and PTAs might handle clerical tasks each day as well, such as answering phones and scheduling appointments.

The types of exercises and activities OTAs and PTAs help patients with can differ. PTAs handle exercises and activities aimed at helping patients move, which might involve stretching or massage. OTAs handle exercises and activities that focus on helping patients do everyday tasks, such as being able to bathe themselves or move from a wheelchair to a bed.

How to Become an OTA or a PTA

Becoming an OTA or a PTA involves earning the right degree and meeting state licensure or certification requirements. OTAs and PTAs typically need to have an associate degree that comes from an accredited OTA or PTA program. These degree programs help OTAs and PTAs learn the skills required for their career. Earning this degree typically takes about two years, although some schools offer accelerated programs.

PTAs need to obtain licensing or certification in order to work in their state. This usually involves passing the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy’s National Physical Therapy Exam for PTAs. In some states, PTAs need to pass a test on the state’s laws and regulations for physical therapist assistants. Other states require PTAs to pass a criminal background check. To maintain a license, some states require PTAs to take continuing education courses. PTAs might also have the option to become certified in basic life support, CPR, and other first aid skills.

In most states, OTAs are required to have a license. Other states have different ways to regulate the practice of OTAs. To obtain a license in some states, OTAs must earn a degree from an accredited program, complete fieldwork requirements, and pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam. Those who want to use the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) title need to successfully pass this exam. OTAs can also earn specialty certifications from the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Start Your Healthcare Journey Today

Whether you decide to become an OTA or a PTA, Bryant & Stratton College has the right degree program to get you started. Find your program today or learn more about our OTA associate degree or PTA associate degree program.

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