Physical Therapy Versus Occupational Therapy
When you decide to begin a career in health care, you’re making a powerful choice. Not only will you become capable of improving and shaping the lives of countless people over the course of your career, but you will be entering a job market where your skills will almost certainly always be in high demand — transforming your life for the better, as well. Entering a career in health care, and specifically, a career in therapy is extremely challenging but also tremendously rewarding if you choose the career path that’s right for you. If you’re considering which major you want to focus on during your studies or if you’re thinking of changing careers, there are some essentials you should know when choosing between physical therapy and occupational therapy.
Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Job Descriptions
The most significant difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy is the patients who are served. Physical therapists typically work with patients who have suffered injuries or illnesses that have restricted their movements and are working to regain full function. There also is a strong injury prevention component in physical therapists’ duties; as they work to help patients prevent future injuries.
An occupational therapist, on the other hand, works with patients who have developmental or cognitive disabilities that impact their ability to perform day-to-day tasks, or have suffered injuries that limit their ability to do the same. Occupational therapists typically focus their attention on helping patients with the practical aspects of their lives so they can live a more complete and active life.
For example, a physical therapist would begin a patient’s treatment by diagnosing his or her physical limitations and developing a program involving exercise, massage and other techniques aimed at relieving pain and strengthening muscles to give the patient fuller mobility. This also involves creating a fitness and wellness regimen that will help the patient avoid further injury and become more active. An occupational therapist, on the other hand, would begin by identifying basic tasks, like getting dressed, in which the patient needs help. Then, developing a rehabilitation plan that may include making changes to the patient’s home or work environments. Occupational therapists also work with patients with support for cognitive and/or memory loss issues.
Educational and Licensing Requirements for Physical and Occupational Therapists
Along with the obvious differences in their typical job duties, the educational and licensing requirements for physical therapists and occupational therapists also vary considerably. In order to become a doctor of physical therapy, students must go through what is usually a three-year program. They typically are required to have a bachelor’s degree before starting the doctor of physical therapy program, but some programs allow for entry directly after high school. These programs tend to consist of 80 percent classroom and laboratory study, with the rest consisting of clinical experience outside the classroom. Once a physical therapy student completes his or her education, the student must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam, which can be taken no more than four times in one year. There may also be additional requirements from the state board that must be met.
Students working to become occupational therapists must have a bachelor’s degree in a related field of study such as biology or health science. Afterward, they must earn a master’s degree in a program approved by the American Occupational Therapy Association. These master’s degree programs typically take two years to complete and include 16 weeks of field work in addition to classroom and laboratory study. If a student chooses to do so, he or she can also pursue a doctorate in occupational therapy. Next, he or she must pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapy exam, which can be retaken after 45 days if necessary. As with physical therapy, there may be additional requirements depending on the state.
Employment Outlook and Salaries for Physical and Occupational Therapists
Whether a student chooses to enter physical therapy or occupational therapy, the outlook for job prospects is bright. Physical therapists have a median income of more than $85,000 per year. Their expected job growth is 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.
Entering a career in either physical therapy or occupational therapy is a big decision. This guide outlines many of the key differences between the two career paths, so be sure to consider them carefully before you make the next decision that could shape your life and many others for years to come.
Lisa Orlando is Vice President, Marketing, Communications and Early Intervention at Progressus Therapy, a provider of employment and professional development for therapists. Progressus Therapy helps connect qualified candidates with school-based therapy careers across the United States
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