Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy - What's the Difference?

Occupational therapy vs physical therapyOccupational therapy and physical therapy are two health professions that are commonly mistaken for one another. When it comes to choosing a career, many wonder how the fields and education in occupational and physical therapy are different. Occupational and physical therapists both provide necessary interventions to help individuals gain or regain skills, improve independence, use assistive devices, and/or modify their environments to improve their performance of varied daily activities. Despite having some common professional principles that are similar, occupational therapy and physical therapy are different. Choosing an educational path to become an occupational or physical therapist requires having a strong academic background, a solid understanding of each field, and an understanding of which field may be a better “fit” for you. 

What Is the Main Difference Between Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy?
What Is Occupational Therapy?
What Is Physical Therapy?
Which Career Should You Choose: OT vs. PT?

What Is the Main Difference Between Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy?

There are many differences between occupational therapy and physical therapy. Each profession has a specific scope of practice that is regulated by state licensure and practitioners work in many different practice settings. In general, physical therapists treat specific areas of the body to improve strength, movement, balance, and to improve the quality and safety of mobility. For example, a physical therapist would help an adult client with a degenerative condition to improve his or her ability to walk and manage stairs with an assistive ambulatory device.

As a comparison, occupational therapists assist people to participate in activities of everyday life that people need to do, want to do, and are expected to do. For example, an occupational therapist would enable an older adult with a hip fracture to be able to return back home from a hospital to safely resume their day to day routines of activity with the use of assistive devices and/or environmental adaptations. A great resource to review for further differences between these fields is to visit the websites of the American Occupational Therapy Association and the American Physical Therapy Association.

Are There Any Similarities Between Occupational and Physical Therapy?

Despite the differences between occupational therapy and physical therapy, there are some similarities between these fields as well. A physical therapist could potentially have a client who has suffered a stroke and is relearning how to walk with an assistive device whereas an occupational therapist may have the same client but they are being trained on how to use a wheelchair to get from his or her bed to the bathroom toilet in order to perform their own toileting. Both therapists are working on mobility but in different ways and for different reasons.

Here are some other tasks and responsibilities that can be common across both fields, both occupational and physical therapy:

  • Work with clients across the lifespan of development, from babies to older adults
  • Review education, health, and/or medical records to understand a client’s prior level of function and current challenges
  • Evaluate clients to understand their strengths and areas of needed improvement
  • Perform custom interventions for clients with cognitive, perceptual, sensory, and/or motor impairments 
  • Educate and train families and/or caregivers of clients on skills to improve clients’ safety, function, and well-being

What Is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapists are practitioners who help enable persons to do the day-to-day activities that are important and meaningful to their health and well-being. Occupational therapists work across many different types of practice settings, such as schools, hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, outpatient clinics, home health, early intervention, community health, and mental health. Occupational therapists work full-time, part-time, or on a consultant-basis. Occupational therapists use a holistic approach to enable increased independence in one’s daily activities. For example, an occupational therapist may have several clients with the same diagnosis, but they are all treated differently because each client has different things that they need to do, want to do, and are expected to do.

Average Occupational Therapist Salary

The median annual salary for occupational therapists was $84,270 in 2018, according to the BLS. The best-paid 10 percent in the profession earned more than $120,750, while the lowest-paid 10 percent earned less than $55,490.

These statistics, provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), show that occupational therapy is a well-compensated profession, with an average annual pay that is far greater than the average earnings across all jobs in the United States. Even the starting salary of the lowest ten percent is significantly higher than that average American salary. 

Occupational Therapist Job Outlook

The BLS projects 23,700 new jobs to open in the occupational therapy field by 2028. The profession is expected to grow by 18%, more than three times the average national growth rate across all occupations.

This growth rate is largely due to the aging Baby Boomer population in need of occupational aid in their advanced years. Individuals with Alzheimer’s, stroke, and general dystrophy – all common in older individuals – can greatly benefit from the help of an occupational therapist. The average number of individuals affected by long-term physical or mental disability only increases the demand for properly educated and trained occupational therapists. It’s clear that the growing need for occupational therapists will contribute to their high demand for the foreseeable future. 

If you are interested in learning more about occupational therapy, take a look at Gwynedd Mercy University’s Master of Science in Occupational Therapy program.

What Is Physical Therapy?

Physical therapists are practitioners who diagnose and treat individuals who have medical problems or other health-related conditions that limit their abilities to move and perform functional activities in their daily lives. Generally, many of the clients in physical therapy come from accidents, post-surgical procedures, or chronic conditions. Examples of some common injuries physical therapists can help with are arthritis, sprains, muscle strains, back and neck pain, and fractures. Physical therapists are trained to teach helpful exercises to restore movement and other exercises that improve practical, everyday movement for people that require adaptive equipment. They are also trained to supervise exercises that improve the strength and mobility of damaged joints. Due to the expansive skillset and diverse set of ailments that physical therapists are trained for, their day-to-day activities can differ greatly. On the same day, a physical therapist could treat an injured athlete as well as an individual recovering from a stroke.

Physical therapists work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, private practices, outpatient clinics, home health, schools, sports and fitness facilities, work settings, and skilled nursing facilities.

Average Physical Therapist Salary

The median annual salary for physical therapists was $87,930 in 2018, according to the BLS. The highest-paid 10 percent made $123,350, while the lowest-paid 10 percent made less than $60,390.

Similarly to occupational therapists’ salaries, physical therapists make well over the average annual salary across all occupations. 

Physical Therapist Job Outlook

According to the BLS, it is projected that there will be 54,200 physical therapy job openings by 2028. This is due to a 22% projected growth rate since 2018. Two of the main issues driving up the demand for physical therapy are increasing cases of obesity and diabetes. A large number of physical therapists are needed to help those individuals strengthen and improve regular body motion. 

Advancements in the medical field drive up the demand for physical therapy careers, as well. Doctors have become more adept at treating serious trauma and birth defects, leaving physical therapists with a lot of pertinent physical rehabilitation and training to do once individuals are released from the care of a hospital. 

Which Career Should You Choose: OT vs. PT?

If you are debating physical therapy vs occupational therapy, it is important to see which field appeals to your professional interests. If you are someone who could focus on and treat a specific impairment (such as an orthopedic injured joint) or has an interest in movement and mobility, then you might want to choose a career in physical therapy. If you are someone who views disability in a holistic manner and can treat a person many different ways depending on the client’s wants, needs, and expectations, then you might want to choose a career in occupational therapy.
Take into account the similarities and core differences between the two professions outlined above. Which of those responsibilities strikes you as important or rewarding? Do any miss the mark in regard to your areas of interest?

Also, to get an idea of what each career path will offer, take a look at some degree programs and requirements for admission for each of these two professions. All of these details should help you make an educated, informed decision on your potential career path.

Why Choose Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy is a very promising profession. The occupational therapist job outlook is expected to grow by 18% and the expected salary is well above the national average.

Also, working with disabled client populations can be an extremely rewarding line of work, which is something valued greatly at GMercyU. Be sure to take a look at GMercyU’s contemporary Master of Science in Occupational Therapy Program as well as the Bachelor of Health Science in Occupational Science, which serves as a dual degree program with occupational therapy.