Occupational therapy assistant vs. physical therapy assistant

Occupational Therapy Assistant

An Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) is a healthcare professional who works under the supervision of an Occupational Therapist (OT). The primary goal of occupational therapy is to help individuals of all ages regain or develop the necessary skills to perform their daily activities or “occupations.” These occupations may include self-care, work, leisure, and social participation. The focus of occupational therapy is on improving the patient’s ability to participate in everyday activities, considering both their physical and mental well-being.

OTAs work with a diverse range of clients who may experience a variety of health conditions, including but not limited to: physical disabilities, developmental delays, cognitive impairments, mental health disorders, and chronic illnesses. Occupational therapy interventions may involve adapting the environment, modifying tasks, teaching new skills, and providing education and support to patients and their families. The primary goal is to help patients overcome barriers, achieve independence, and enhance their quality of life.

Physical Therapy Assistant

A Physical Therapy Assistant (PTA) is a healthcare professional who works under the supervision of a Physical Therapist (PT). The primary goal of physical therapy is to help individuals of all ages restore, maintain, and improve their physical function and mobility. PTAs focus on addressing issues related to body movement, strength, flexibility, and balance, which may have been impacted by injury, illness, surgery, or other health conditions.

PTAs work with a wide range of patients, including those recovering from injuries, surgeries, or managing chronic conditions such as arthritis or neurological disorders. Physical therapy interventions often involve exercise, manual therapy, modalities (e.g., heat, cold, electrical stimulation), and assistive devices to help patients regain function, reduce pain, and prevent further disability. The primary goal is to help patients achieve their maximum functional potential and improve their overall physical well-being.

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Education and Certification


To become an OTA, one typically needs to complete an accredited associate degree program in occupational therapy, which generally takes about two years with courses covering topics such as anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and therapeutic techniques. Graduates must then pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) examination to become a Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA).


Similarly, PTA programs also lead to an associate degree, with coursework in subjects like anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and therapeutic exercise. Upon completion, graduates must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) for PTAs, administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT), to become licensed or certified PTAs.

Roles and Responsibilities

Occupational Therapy Assistants

OTAs work under the supervision of OTs, focusing on helping clients regain or develop the skills necessary for daily living and working. Their responsibilities include:

  • Implementing treatment plans designed by OTs.
  • Assisting clients in performing activities of daily living (ADLs), such as dressing, grooming, and eating.
  • Teaching clients to use adaptive equipment, such as wheelchairs or prosthetics.
  • Collaborating with OTs to modify clients’ environments to promote accessibility and independence.
  • Documenting clients’ progress and reporting to OTs.

Physical Therapy Assistants

On the other hand, PTAs work under the direction and supervision of PTs, concentrating on helping clients improve mobility, reduce pain, and prevent or recover from injuries or disabilities. Their duties encompass:

  • Assisting PTs with patient evaluations and developing treatment plans.
  • Implementing therapeutic exercises and functional training programs.
  • Administering manual therapy techniques, such as joint mobilization and soft tissue massage.
  • Providing education on body mechanics, posture, and home exercise programs.
  • Documenting patient progress and reporting to PTs.

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Scope of Practice

While both OTAs and PTAs work to improve their patients’ well-being, the primary focus of occupational therapy is on helping patients regain or develop the skills needed for everyday activities, whereas physical therapy focuses on improving patients’ physical function and mobility. OTAs may address a broader range of issues encompassing physical, cognitive, and emotional aspects, while PTAs primarily concentrate on physical impairments.

Work Settings

OTAs and PTAs can be found in a variety of work settings, with some overlap in the environments they serve. Both professionals may work in hospitals, outpatient clinics, schools, and skilled nursing facilities. However, OTAs are more likely to be found in settings focused on daily living skills, such as mental health facilities, vocational rehabilitation centers, and home health agencies. PTAs are more commonly found in settings emphasizing movement and mobility, like sports medicine clinics, orthopedic centers, and inpatient rehabilitation facilities.

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Interventions and Treatments

Occupational Therapy Assistants

OTAs focus on a holistic approach, considering the patient’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and social needs. They employ techniques such as activity analysis and adaptation, assistive technology, environmental modifications, and skills training to improve patients’ performance in daily activities. For example, an OTA might work with a patient to develop a strategy for dressing or cooking independently after a stroke.

Physical Therapy Assistants

PTAs concentrate on addressing physical impairments and limitations. They employ therapeutic exercises, manual therapy techniques, gait training, and the use of various modalities like ultrasound or electrical stimulation to promote healing, reduce pain, and improve patients’ mobility, strength, balance, and flexibility. For instance, a PTA might work with a patient to improve their walking ability following a knee replacement surgery.

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