Physical therapist vs occupational therapist have similar roles
Allied Health

Career Options: Physical Therapist vs Occupational Therapist

The rehabilitation therapy field offers excellent job security. These positions allow you to work closely with patients, build rapport through sequential care sessions and help enable direct improvements in patients’ physical well-being in a relatively short time. Few allied health professions check these boxes as well as physical therapy and occupational therapy jobs. While Physical Therapist (PT) and Occupational Therapist (OT) careers share a wide range of similarities, and both center on helping patients with physical rehabilitation, they also have a few notable differences in their primary focus areas and educational requirements.

This guide compares the duties, benefits and requirements of working as an occupational therapist and a physical therapist. We aim to help you understand the specific aspects of each profession so that you can choose the path that aligns best with your passion for helping others reach their fullest potential.

Core Responsibilities and Requirements of PT vs. OT

The core responsibilities of OTs and PTs overlap because both professionals help patients improve their bodies’ functionality, often after injury, illness or surgical interventions. The nation’s aging population, workplace injuries and even a growing need to address the impacts of using digital devices keep demand for both careers growing. 

When comparing the core differences, OTs focus more on helping patients develop particular skills for life and work (i.e., performing specific tasks). Conversely, PTs focus more on overall body functionality, freedom of movement and reducing physical pain. Both may work with patients of all ages.

What Do Occupational Therapists Do?

Occupational therapist working with senior patient

OTs help patients develop, recover or maintain daily living and work skills that improve their ability to live independently, focusing on both physical and mental health aspects.

Responsibilities include:

  • Assessing patients’ needs and developing individualized treatment plans.
  • Teaching patients how to perform tasks in their daily lives, such as dressing, cooking or working.
  • Modifying environments (e.g., home, workplace) to enhance patient functionality.
  • Utilizing adaptive equipment and technology.
  • Working with individuals with a range of conditions, including developmental disabilities, mental health issues and physical impairments.

What Do Physical Therapists Do?

Physical therapist working with kids

PTs strive to help improve patients’ movement and manage pain via targeted exercises and therapies.

Responsibilities include:

  • Evaluating patients’ physical abilities and developing treatment plans.
  • Providing exercises and therapies to improve mobility, strength and coordination while easing pain and preventing further injury.
  • Using techniques such as manual therapy, stretching and equipment-based exercises.
  • Educating patients on injury prevention and promoting healthy lifestyles.
  • Treating conditions related to musculoskeletal, neurological and cardiovascular systems.

Where and How PTs and OTs Work

OTs and PTs often work in outpatient offices alongside speech therapists as part of holistic physical rehabilitation care. They also work in hospitals, schools, nursing homes and mental health clinics. OTs frequently work with home health service teams to assist patients in navigating their everyday lives in their own homes. Occasionally, occupational therapists also visit workplaces to address safety and ergonomics. 

Both professionals have direct patient contact, modeling techniques and exercises to improve motor skills and body functionality, overseeing patients as they practice those techniques. OTs and PTs receive support from OT assistants or PT assistants, who typically hold an associate degree rather than the advanced degrees and licensure required of full OTs and PTs.

OT vs. PT Educational Requirements

Working as an OT or a PT requires earning an advanced degree in the field and obtaining licensure after passing the national exam. Here’s a breakdown of the specifics for occupational therapist vs. physical therapist requirements.

Occupational Therapists:

  • Degree: Currently, the OT profession offers “dual-entry” points, either by obtaining a master’s degree in occupational therapy (MOT) or a doctoral degree (OTD). There’s some discussion in the field of ultimately requiring new OTs to obtain a doctorate, but that isn’t in effect yet.
  • Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree, typically with coursework in biology, psychology, and anatomy
  • Licensure: Pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam to become a registered occupational therapist (OTR)
  • Continuing Education: Required by many states for maintaining licensure and staying updated with the latest practices

Physical Therapists:

  • Degree: Obtain a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree
  • Prerequisites: A bachelor’s degree, often with courses in biology, chemistry, physics and anatomy
  • Licensure: Pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) to become a licensed physical therapist
  • Continuing Education: Necessary for licensure renewal and professional development in most states

Specialization Opportunities for PT vs. OT

Physical or occupational therapist helping a young patient

Upon licensure, OTs and PTs can work unsupervised as generalists in their field. However, as they gain experience, many develop specific areas of specialization. The accreditation organizations for both fields offer professional certifications covering particular patient populations or categories of health.

Occupational Therapy Specializations:

  • Pediatrics: Working with children to develop fine motor skills and participate in school and play
  • Geriatrics: Assisting older adults in maintaining independence and managing age-related challenges
  • Mental Health: Supporting individuals with mental health issues to improve their daily functioning
  • Hand Therapy: Focusing on rehabilitation of the hand and upper extremities
  • Ergonomics: Enhancing workplace design and practices to prevent injuries

Occupational therapy certifications include physical rehabilitation (BCPR), pediatrics (BCP), and geriatrics (BCG) through the American Occupational Therapy Association. Various organizations also offer certifications in niche specialties, such as Hand Therapy Certification from the Hand Therapy Certification Commission (available to OTs and PTs).

Physical Therapy Specializations:

  • Orthopedics: Treating musculoskeletal injuries and conditions
  • Neurology: Working with patients with neurological disorders such as stroke, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis
  • Pediatrics: Addressing movement issues in children
  • Sports Physical Therapy: Focusing on injury prevention and recovery in athletes
  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary: Helping patients with heart and lung conditions improve endurance and functional abilities
  • Geriatrics: Specializing in the care of older adults, focusing on mobility and fall prevention

Professional certifications from the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) abound in the PT field. Certifications include:

Physical Therapists vs. Occupational Therapists: Salaries and Job Growth Prospects

Older adult doing physical therapy

How Much Do Physical Therapists Make?

The average physical therapist salary was $52.46 per hour ($2,098 per week) on May 10, 2024, based on jobs posted on Vivian Health. PTs could expect to earn around $2,058 per week in travel roles posted on that date. However, many travel roles paid above $3,000 weekly. Earning more than the average is possible by working in high-paying or high-demand regions and/or gaining experience and specialization.

How Much Do Occupational Therapists Make?

Per Vivian’s salary data, the average occupational therapist salary was $56.21 per hour ($2,248 per week) on May 10, 2024. OTs could expect to earn around $2,019 per week in travel roles on that date. However, many travel roles paid over $3,000 per week on that date. As with PT roles, earning above-average wages is possible by working in the most in-demand, high-paying regions and/or specializing and gaining experience.

Job Growth Projections Suggest OT and PT in Demand

If you’re interested in the OT and PT field, an additional motivation may be that both are in-demand careers. Physical therapists and occupational therapists ranked No. 5 and No. 8, respectively, on Vivian’s list of 10 fastest-growing allied health careers in 2024. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes job growth projections for different careers.  Occupational therapy and physical therapy are both expected to see faster-than-average job growth between 2022 and 2032. The BLS projects 15% job growth for PTs and 12% job growth for OTs during this time frame.

There are typically lots of active occupational therapist jobs and physical therapist jobs, including travel OT roles and travel PT roles, posted on Vivian’s jobs marketplace. Those interested in travel careers benefit from the growing Occupational Therapy Licensure Compact and PT Compact, in which participating states honor licensure held by professionals in any participating state. 

Summary: Comparing and Contrasting OT vs. PT Careers

Occupational or physical therapist working with a patient

For current students or those considering a change in healthcare professions, a general overview can help you compare key similarities and differences between the two careers.

Key Similarities OT vs. PT

  1. Patient-Centered Care: OTs and PTs develop personalized treatment plans based on individual patient needs and goals and work directly and physically with patients.
  2. Focus on Rehabilitation: Both therapists aim to aid recovery and enhance patient functionality, whether through improving physical movements or daily living activities.
  3. Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Both professionals frequently work with other healthcare providers to ensure comprehensive care.
  4. Education and Licensure: Both require advanced degrees and licensure. 
  5. Good Pay and Job Growth: Both occupations pay salaries well above the national average, offer the option of travel roles and are experiencing above-average job growth.

Key Differences PT vs. OT

  1. Focus Areas
    • Occupational Therapists: Emphasize helping patients perform daily activities and improve their ability to live independently with tasks such as dressing, cooking, or working.
    • Physical Therapists: Focus on enhancing physical function, mobility and pain management. They employ exercises and therapies to improve strength, coordination and movement, often treating musculoskeletal and neurological conditions.
  2. Treatment Techniques
    • OTs: Use adaptive equipment and modify environments to help patients engage in daily activities. They might teach someone with a hand injury how to use utensils or help a child with developmental delays improve their play skills.
    • PTs: Utilize manual therapy, stretching and exercise regimens, and other techniques to restore movement. They might help patients regain mobility after surgery or teach them exercises to prevent sports injuries.
  3. Specializations
    • OTs: Pediatrics, geriatrics, mental health, hand therapy and ergonomics
    • PTs: Orthopaedics, neurology, sports therapy, cardiovascular and pulmonary therapy, pediatrics and geriatrics

Vivian Health can help you find the perfect staff or travel job in physical therapy, occupational therapy or other allied health careers. Use our job search tool to sort jobs by region, specialty and contract type to find the ideal match for your career goals and personal needs.

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Michael Hines

Michael Hines is a freelance researcher and writer based in Brooklyn, New York. For 20 years, he's written on various healthcare topics, including healthcare employment, telemedicine, healthcare legislation, obesity, immunotherapy and genomics. He also writes about technology and AI, public policy, finance and investing, consumer products and corporate environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices.

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