What is the Difference Between a Physical Therapist and an Occupational Therapist?

Physical therapists and occupational therapists have confusingly similar jobs. Both types of professionals are concerned with helping their patients heal and adapt to circumstances resulting from injury or disability. Both are involved with educating the public about how to heal themselves and avoid future complications resulting from their injuries. Both types of careers are financially and emotionally rewarding. So what is the actual difference between physical therapists and occupational therapists? Read on to see how these roles differ in terms of job description, educational requirements, compensation and future job outlook.

Differences in Job Description

Physical therapists focus on assisting their patients to heal the specific injuries they’ve suffered as a result of an accident, chronic condition, illness or disability. The work they do centers on improving their patients’ movements, achieving normal range of motion and managing pain in a healthy and non-destructive manner. They recommend exercises for their patients and help them to stretch, increase flexibility, improve mobility and heal to the best of their abilities.

Occupational therapists differ slightly in their approach. They are more focused on outcomes for their patients based on their patients’ goals for life and work. They can help fit their patients with equipment such as leg braces, walkers or wheelchairs that will help them to live and work independently. They can help elderly or disabled patients redesign their living spaces to improve safety and reduce the risk of future injuries.

Differences in Educational Requirements

You need more advanced academic credentials to become a physical therapist than you need to become an occupational therapist. The entry-level academic requirement for physical therapists is a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Completing the degree typically takes 3 years. You also have to complete a residency.

In contrast, the entry-level academic requirement for occupational therapy is a master’s degree. Degree programs in this field require at least 2 years to complete, and some are 3-year programs. Candidates for the degree are required to complete extensive fieldwork under supervision to gain the necessary work experience for practice as occupational therapists.

In the USA, both of these roles require state licensure in the state of medical practice.

Differences in Compensation

Physical therapists and occupational therapists are both paid well for the work they do. Physical therapy tends to pay slightly better than occupational therapy does. The median annual compensation for physical therapists was $85,400 as of May 2016. In the same time period, the median annual compensation for occupational therapists was $81,910.

Differences in the Outlook for Future Job Prospects

Professionals in both of these specializations are in strong demand, and the outlook for employment is outstanding for either type of role. Experts at the US Department of Labor predict that the future demand for physical therapists will be slightly higher up until the year 2024, with projections for 34 percent more new physical therapy jobs in the future. They project a 27 percent increase in demand for occupational therapists during the same time frame.

We hope this explanation gives you a clearer understanding of the main differences between a physical therapist and an occupational therapist. Perhaps you are considering which, if either, of these roles would be the right one for you to aspire to. If that’s the case, we hope you now have a better idea of whether you’d prefer to choose a career as a physical therapist or an occupational therapist.