Say you're looking for a medical professional to help rehabilitate you after you tore your rotator cuff during the homecoming game. Who would you call? A physical therapist? How about an occupational therapist?
The truth is, many people consider physical therapy and occupational therapy to be interchangeable. But if you're interested in medicine, anatomy and exercise and you're in the midst of narrowing down a field of post-graduate study, which one do you choose?
Both occupational therapy and physical therapy are set to see faster than average growth over the next ten years, both are typically paired with healthy median salaries and they both require many of the same skills. In fact, patients will sometimes even see both a physical therapist and an occupational therapist, often meeting with one practitioner first before being referred to the other—so what's the difference?
We wanted to get to the bottom of this commonly asked question, so we pulled some data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) and the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). Here is what we found:
The word occupation, while most commonly used in reference to a person's vocational path, means "an activity in which a person is engaged." The word physical, on the other hand, means "of or pertaining to the body." The definitions themselves serve as precursors to the inherent differences between occupational therapy and physical therapy.
Physical therapy is, in fact, what most people think it is: the physical rehabilitation of people recovering from injuries or disease. The goal is to help patients restore mobility. This can minimize the need for expensive surgeries or long-term reliance on medications. Physical therapists also teach patients how to prevent or manage their condition so that they can attain long-term health benefits.
Occupational therapy also considers the physical aspects of rehabilitation and motion, but it is focused primarily on enabling the patient to engage in the meaningful activities of daily life as seamlessly as possible. These healthcare professionals are dedicated to assisting patients in the long-term through therapeutic adaptations and modifications to their environments.
Some examples include assisting children with disabilities in participating fully in school or other social situations, helping patients regain skills after recovering from an injury and providing physical and environmental support for older adults experiencing bodily and cognitive changes.
The educational standards in both fields are high. In fact, some entry-level occupational and physical therapists hold master's degrees, but a vast majority of these positions require a doctoral degree in the respective field, according to BLS.
There are also strict licensing laws for those who choose to work in these fields. Every state requires physical therapists to be licensed in the vicinity in which they work. Licensure is also required for occupational therapists in every state, although the criteria to acquire and maintain the necessary certification varies by state.
Both occupational therapy and physical therapy often require many of the same skills—in fact, several methods of physical therapy are used as a part of the occupational therapy practices and vice versa. The inherent differences are much clearer when analyzing the job duties of both professions.
Physical therapists focus primarily on anatomical injuries, the bulk of their work residing in the preparation and implementation of individualized patient plans, according to APTA. They test and measure a patient's strength, functional capacity and motor development; and they work to improve mobility in each category. They also work in injury prevention and craft post-therapy treatment plans if necessary.
Physical therapists demonstrate specialized competence in a number of areas including the development of new principles and applications to meet emerging health needs, as well as extensive healthcare research, education, consultation and administrative tasks.
Occupational therapists do focus on some of the same physical aspects of the therapy process, but more than just a knowledge base of anatomical health, a comprehensive understanding of mental health is also crucial to this profession, according to AOTA. Not only do they evaluate a patient's physical capabilities, but they design activities and exercises that will help patients learn work and life management skills within their limits. These healthcare professionals use assistive technology with a wide variety of clients to promote function and independence in daily activities.
Both occupational therapists and physical therapists will often venture outside their clinics to visit patient homes and offices to assess and recommend environmental changes, but also to train the caregivers who will be associated most directly with the patients once therapy concludes. Other non-clinical settings for both occupational and physical therapists include public schools and business sites preventing work-related injuries through the application of proper ergonomics.
Our research also illustrates the projected outlook and average salary for each career path. Both occupational therapy and physical therapy are expected to see remarkable growth through 2022.
The average growth rate for most professions is 12 percent through 2022, according to the BLS. But the fields of occupational therapy and physical therapy are projected to grow 29 and 36 percent, respectively, over the same time period.
The average annual salary is difficult to deduce, as there are so many geographic and educational variables that come into play. The overarching numbers, though, are in keeping with—if not a bit higher than—the average numbers across the country regardless of vocational field: Occupational therapists earn a median annual salary of $75,400, while physical therapists bring in an median salary of $79,860 annually.**
The roles of both occupational therapists and physical therapists are integral to restorative healthcare in today's society. And while different from one another, the professionals in both fields work collaboratively to improve the quality of life for their patients. Both are equipped with bright outlooks in today's job market and both work toward enabling patients to reach their full potential, so it all comes down to which field suits you better.
If you align more closely with the skills, educational plan and mission that supports the work of occupational therapists, visit the CSS occupational therapy degree page to learn more. If the requirements and practices of physical therapists seem more up your alley, then head over to the CSS physical therapy degree page for more information. Either choice could be the first step toward success in your healthcare career!
**Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.