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For anyone considering a career in health care, the roles of physical therapist assistant (PTA) and occupational therapy assistant (OTA) are both excellent potential career options that revolve around directly helping patients. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for PTA and OTA careers is expected to grow at an above average rate from 2019 to 2029. Both occupational and physical therapy can help patients to improve their overall level of function and their strength, balance and range of motion. Both fields use adaptive equipment, assistive technology, and orthotics and prosthetic management. Yet, despite these similarities, the work these professionals do also differs in a variety of ways. Below we explore these important roles to better understand their differences and similarities.

What does a physical therapist assistant do?

Physical therapist assistants (PTAs) work under the supervision of physical therapists to support patient rehabilitation following a particular injury, illness or surgery and to maximize functional independence. PTAs focus on specific body movements and body mechanics, generally focusing on exercise, gait, balance and transfers (such as going from sitting to standing or vice versa).

PTAs help physical therapists to implement individualized plans of care for patients using exercises and specialized equipment to facilitate a patient’s health and wellness. They may also use ultrasound, electrical stimulation, traction and compression wrapping to support patients. PTAs may work with patients of all ages and may choose to specialize in areas and techniques such as wound care, neurologic, orthopedics, pediatrics, aquatics, manual therapy techniques and more.

What does an occupational therapist assistant do?

Occupational therapy is a holistic practice that treats the mind, body and spirit. Through focusing on a person’s quality of life, the goal is to help patients of all ages and mental, developmental, and physical abilities live more independent and fulfilling lives. Occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) work under the direction of occupational therapists. Via individualized and group treatments, OTAs help clients affected by injury, surgery or illness to recover from or adjust to physical or cognitive changes and limitations. For developmental disorders such as autism, OTAs use a variety of strategies to maximize their functional independence.

OTAs often use therapeutic activities – such as crafts, cooking, games, socialization, self-care tasks and simulations – along with exercises, stretching maneuvers and equipment to facilitate their patients’ health and wellness. In addition, they focus on environmental adaptations, compensatory strategies and functional cognition retraining to support patients and give them the ability to complete everyday activities and self-care tasks like bathing and going to the bathroom. OTAs may specialize in areas like feeding, low vision, sensory integration, driving, home modification, hand therapy, aquatics and animal therapy.

Where do these healthcare professionals work?

Both PTAs and OTAs can work in hospitals, assisted living facilities, private practice, home health and schools. PTAs may also work in outpatient clinics, while some OTAs work in mental health facilities, forensic and juvenile justice centers, and various community-based settings.

What education is required to become a PTA or OTA?

Individuals interested in becoming a PTA or OTA will need to complete an associate degree program and then pursue state licensure or certification. To find out about the PTA and OTA programs at South University – and how we can prepare you to pursue a rewarding healthcare career via a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on learning experiences – request information today.