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How Occupational Therapy Differs from Physical Therapy

While much of the general public may be unable to differentiate occupational therapy from physical therapy, practitioners of each medical field recognize the clear differences. While both specialties attempt to improve the quality of life for their patients through a variety of therapeutic modalities, there is a sharp contrast between the two.

Different Approaches

The most important difference is that occupational therapy is much broader in scope than physical therapy. PT is primarily utilized to rehabilitate physical, emotional and social abilities through physical exercises like range of motion, ultrasound treatments and strengthening exercises. On the other hand, occupational therapists may include these types of therapies but also include developing strategies for improved functionality within a certain environment. OTs are often just as concerned with instilling adaptive skills for greater independence as they are with improving physical abilities. For example, a PT is more likely to focus on anatomical improvement following a bone fracture, while an OT is just as likely to focus on ways to independently care for oneself as help improve strength and flexibility.

Occupational Therapists are also likely to become involved with different categories of patients than Physical Therapists. While PTs are more likely to be consulted following an injury or illness, OTs may treat these types of patients as well as those who possess developmental issues, permanent disability, or limited functionality due to age. The different types of patients also engenders a difference in goals. While Physical Therapists are primarily concerned with restoring lost functionality, Occupational Therapists typically emphasize developing completely new skills that can help produce greater self-reliance.

Professional Differences

There are a number of similarities between the two professions in terms of being able to practice. Both professions are governed by a national certifying body which administers a certification exam to graduates of accredited degree programs.
While most Occupational Therapists are permitted to enter the profession following graduation from an undergraduate program, most complete a two year Master’s degree. The education for Physical Therapists is slightly more rigorous, with most PT students completing three year post-graduate degree program which awards a Master’s or Doctor’s degree.

While Occupational Therapists must take the Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR) exam offered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapists are required to take the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) offered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. There is a slight cost difference between the two exams with the OTR costing $500, while the NPTE costs $370. There is more flexibility in scheduling the OTR as well, with applicants able to retake exams within 45 days of a previous attempt; NPTE takers are only permitted to retake the exam at specific times of the year.

According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Physical Therapists typically earn more than Occupational Therapists. In 2011, the average salary for PTs was $79,830 throughout the country, while the national average salary for Occupational Therapists was $74,970. There were 105,540 Occupational Therapists working in the country in 2011, with an expected 36,400 jobs in this profession to be added by 2020. There were 191,460 Physical therapists working in the country during this period with an expected 77,400 jobs added by 2020.