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San Joaquin Valley College Blog

Occupational Therapy Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant: What’s the Difference?

September 5, 2019

Occupational-therapy-assistant-working-with-young-childAre you considering pursuing a career as either an occupational therapy assistant or physical therapist assistant? These two professions actually share many similarities. Both are currently in-demand and can command a decent salary, according to statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)¹. So let’s take a closer look to see which of these life-improving careers is right for you.

Occupational Therapy Assistant vs. Physical Therapist Assistant

Let’s start by pointing out that both physical therapist assistants (PTAs) and occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) work under the supervision of a licensed physical or occupational therapist.

According to the American Physical Therapy Association, physical therapist assistants help people of all ages who have medical problems or other health-related conditions that limit their ability to move and perform functional activities in their daily lives².

The Occupational Therapy Guide states that an occupational therapy assistant works with patients of all ages to help them through their day-to-day activities. They perform activities or “occupations” with their patients to help them maintain, develop, and improve fine motor skills or mental skills that the patient is lacking due to physical, mental, developmental, or even emotional problems³.

They sound pretty similar. If you are more interested in helping someone regain physical capabilities, becoming a PTA may be the right choice. OTAs, on the other hand, concentrate on helping people re-learn how to do everyday tasks, or even teach them ways to do everyday tasks using assistive tools or technology. So while there are overlaps between the two careers, you will likely notice some subtle differences.

Now, let’s take a look at the educational requirements to begin these two careers.

OTA vs PTA: Education and Licensing

Both OTAs and PTAs typically need an associate’s degree from an accredited program and generally require two years of study in subjects such as psychology and biology, as well as supervised hands-on work experience, according to the BLS¹.

In addition, both are often certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and basic life support⁴.

All states regulate OTAs and PTAs, with most requiring licensure that typically requires the completion of an accredited education program, completion of fieldwork requirements, and passing a national exam⁴. You’ll need to check with your state board for specific licensing requirements.

But What Exactly do OTAs and PTAs Do on the Job?

Physical therapist assistants are involved in the direct care of patients. They typically do the following5:

  • Observe patients before, during, and after therapy, noting the patient’s status and reporting it to a physical therapist
  • Help patients do specific exercises as part of the plan of care
  • Treat patients, using a variety of techniques, such as massage and stretching
  • Use devices and equipment, such as walkers, to help patients
  • Educate patients and family members about what to do after treatment

Occupational therapy assistants’ duties include6:

  • Helping patients do therapeutic activities, such as stretches and other exercises
  • Leading children who have developmental disabilities in play activities that promote coordination and socialization
  • Encouraging patients to complete activities and tasks
  • Teaching patients how to use special equipment—for example, showing a patient with Parkinson’s disease how to use devices that make eating easier
  • Recording patients’ progress, report to occupational therapists and do other administrative tasks

Are OTA and PTA Jobs in Demand?

Yes! The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 27 percent increase9 in the need for PTAs and a 33 percent increase9 for OTAs nationally between 2018 and 2028. This is due in large part to the aging, yet still active, baby-boom population and medical advances that increase the need for rehabilitation from heart attacks, strokes, and other traumatic injuries.

In May 2018, physical therapist assistants held about 5,150 jobs specifically in California7. Occupational therapy assistants held about 2,280 jobs⁸ in California.

Both professions find work with many of the same employers10. Over 45% find work in the offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists and audiologists. 22% of OTAs and 25% of PTAs are employed in state, local or private hospitals. Physicians offices, skilled nursing facilities, and home health care service providers round out the job picture.

How Much do OTAs and PTAs Make in California?

If you want to earn a good salary in a career that doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree, occupational therapy assistant is near the top of the list. The mean annual wage for an OTA in California was $67,470 in May 201811. California physical therapist assistants earned $64,210 as their mean annual wage11. Salary levels do vary by experience level, work environment, geographical location and more. For salary information by California metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas, visit

How do I Start My Training to Work as an OTA or PTA?

If you’re interested in a solid healthcare career path with good potential for growth in California, becoming a physical therapist assistant or occupational therapy assistant offers decent pay without having to earn a four-year degree. San Joaquin Valley College offers an Occupational Therapy Assistant program that results in an Associate of Science degree. To learn more about this program, request more information or contact San Joaquin Valley College at 866-544-7898. SJVC’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program, offered at our Fresno campus, can prepare you to work in this rewarding field.

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