Occupational therapists (OTs) and occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) work with patients who are injured, ill, or disabled to help them develop, improve, or regain the skills needed for everyday life.

Though OTs and OTAs have a lot in common, they differ in a few main ways. Most notably, OTs and OTAs differ in terms of responsibilities, salaries, and educational requirements. Below are in-depth explanations of the similarities and differences between the two professions:

Responsibilities and Duties of an OT vs an OTA

An OT works independently with their patients, helping them to improve their daily living situations. OTs are responsible for everything from conducting a patient’s intake and creating a treatment plan to physically treating a patient and monitoring their improvements. One of the benefits of becoming an OT is greater independence in practice, and the opportunity to participate in more of a leadership role on care teams. OTAs, much like their name suggests, largely serve to assist OTs in their work. They are less autonomous, and more likely to receive delegated tasks under supervision.

Duties of both an OT and OTA may include, but are not limited to:

  • Training a patient to use assistive devices, such as raised toilet seats or wheelchairs;
  • Teaching a patient how to dress themselves, button a shirt, or tie their shoes;
  • Teaching a patient how to get in and out of the shower;
  • Educating an older patient on how to avoid slips and falls in their home or public areas;
  • Organizing a patient’s medication and instructing them on when to take it;
  • Addressing behavioral problems in children or teens;
  • Working on a patient’s motor skills;
  • Teaching a patient how to regain strength after an accident.

Responsibilities more likely to fall on the shoulders of OTs include, but are not limited to:

  • Reviewing a patient’s medical history;
  • Evaluating a patient’s condition;
  • Developing a treatment plan;
  • Assessing a patient’s level of independence;
  • Prescribing assistive devices;
  • Implementing programs.

OTAs take on many of the same responsibilities as OTs, but generally have less autonomy and skills to complete the full scope of the latter’s responsibilities.

Skills and Attributes of an OT vs. an OTA

For the most part, OTs and OTAs possess the same skillset. Each profession requires compassion, communication, and critical thinking, among other attributes. However, OTs develop more hard skills throughout their additional education and experience. Moreover, OTs take on more leadership and managerial roles, making it important to have developed skills in those areas as well.

A few skills needed for both OTs and OTAs include:

  • Compassion and patience – OTs and OTAs work with some of the most vulnerable people in society. As such, they must bring compassion and patience to their job every day.
  • Critical thinking skills – OTs and OTAs must be prepared to make decisions quickly in case of an emergency; as such they must have sharp critical thinking skills. OTs especially must have critical thinking skills as they have a variety of treatment methods to choose from, and must select the best course of action.
  • Interpersonal and communication skills – Working with patients who may have difficulty articulating their needs means that OTs and OTAs must have excellent interpersonal and communication skills.
  • Teamwork skills – Since OTAs work under the guidance of OTs, both must have teamwork skills.

Skills required of OTs, specifically, include:

  • Diagnostic skills – OTs take on the responsibility of diagnosing patients and figuring out the best treatment plan for their condition. As such, OTs must have excellent diagnostic skills.
  • Leadership skills – Since OTs supervise OTAs, aides, and volunteers, they must possess leadership skills. This includes the ability to teach others, promote teamwork, delegate tasks, and submit feedback, among other abilities.

Educational Requirements of an OT vs. an OTA

OTAs must obtain an associate’s degree from an ACOTE accredited program. These degrees typically take two years to complete. OTs, on the other hand, must obtain at least a master’s degree from an ACOTE accredited program.

Before entering a master’s program, OTs must complete a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field, such as biology, psychology, or health science. Aspiring OTs should be sure to fill their undergraduate schedule with the coursework required for entry into an occupational therapy graduate program.

Licensure and Qualifications of an OT vs. an OTA

After graduating from an accredited program, OTs and OTAs alike must obtain licensure. They do this by taking their respective NBCOT exams. OTs take the Occupational Therapy Registered (OTR) exam and OTAs take the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) exam.

Average Salary of an OT vs. an OTA

As of 2019, OTs in the U.S. earned an average salary of $84,950 per year. OTAs, on the other hand, earned an average salary of $59,200 per year. The difference in pay grade is due to the respective professions’ required education level and amount of responsibilities delegated.

Growth Opportunities of an OT vs. an OTA

Generally speaking, the more education completed the more opportunities arise. OTs, as a result, have more opportunities for growth than their OTA counterparts.

OTs can pursue specialty certifications in fields such as pediatric occupational therapy, mental health occupational therapy, or gerontology. Others may seek supervisory or management roles, such as senior occupational therapist or regional rehabilitation director.