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

What is the difference between a physical therapist and an occupational therapist? Let’s contrast both healthcare professions

Physical therapy and occupational therapy are two complementary medical fields of study. However, these healthcare professionals perform different roles. So what is the difference between a physical therapist and an occupational therapist? Determine the type of care you need by reading further as we delve into the distinction between a physical therapist and an occupational therapist. 

The Distinction Between a Physical Therapist and an Occupational Therapist

While both disciplines are similar, there are key differences. Primarily, physical therapy is focused on gross motor function, while occupational therapy considers how patients use their fine motor and cognitive skills to perform meaningful tasks. 

Physical therapists train intensively in body mechanics, focusing on how different body systems are affected by motion, positioning, and exercise. Generally, they focus their interventions on improving strength, balance, and range of motion to promote body movement. These treatments often target the spine and lower extremities. 

Contrastingly, an occupational therapist helps patients engage in daily activities like self-care, homemaking, leisure, play, and socialization. They get general training in areas such as problem-solving, memory, organization, maintaining routines, social skills, and using community resources. 

Can an Occupational Therapist Do Physical Therapy?

Can an occupational therapist do physical therapy? Let’s talk about it.

Occupational therapists and physical therapists generally work in the same environment. They often address similar conditions using similar treatment methods and tools. In some settings, it may be difficult to distinguish between the two professions.

Historically, occupational therapists and physical therapists were once the same. In World War I, both professions were known as reconstruction aides who helped to rehabilitate veterans. Both disciplines focus on the development, improvement, and maintenance of a patient’s physical function and the ability to perform daily activities. They also optimize a patient’s independence and quality of life. 

In certain settings, both professions may appear the same. For example, in early intervention with infants and toddlers, both physical and occupational therapists may both address functional play skills like encouraging a child to move toward a toy. Similarly, in a hand therapy clinic, both professions can mold custom orthoses and develop exercise programs to improve a patient’s hand strength and range of motion. 

However, in other settings, occupational therapists and physical therapists look quite different. An elementary-age school child with cerebral palsy receives therapy services that focus on mobility, balance, and using orthotics in physical therapy sessions. Also, in occupational therapy sessions, the focus is on mastering fine motor skills like handwriting, cutting paper, and working with other children in the classroom.

Becoming a Physical Therapist or an Occupational Therapist

Anyone interested in becoming a physical therapist or an occupational therapist needs both undergraduate and graduate degrees. The undergraduate prerequisites vary from one program to the next, but the common requirements for both career fields include courses in anatomy, physiology, biology, psychology, and statistics. 

However, physical therapy programs often require prerequisite courses in general chemistry and general physics. On the other hand, occupational therapy requires prerequisite courses such as medical terminology, neuroscience, kinesiology, sociology, communications, and art.  

Educational Paths

Becoming a physical therapist requires that a student complete a Doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT) which takes approximately three years. To become an occupational therapist, a student needs to complete a Master’s Degree in Occupational Therapy (A, MS, MOT, MAOT, MSOT) which takes anywhere between two and three years. Alternatively, they may complete a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy (OTD, DOT, DrOT), which takes about three years. 

Some educational institutions may also offer combined bachelor’s/DPT programs and combined bachelor’s/OT programs. 

Classroom and Clinical Education 

Students in physical and occupational therapy programs are trained in basic skills such as:

  • Administering screenings and evaluations
  • Creating plans for care and interventions
  • Supervising physical therapy or occupational therapy assistants
  • Documentation
  • Critical research skills
  • Leveraging evidence-based practice
  • Applying physical agents and modalities (for example, hot and cold packs, ultrasound, etc.)
  • Monitoring patients’ vitals 

The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) mandates that physical therapy students complete a minimum of 30 weeks of clinical experience. Physical therapists must meet a specific list of basic competencies and the curriculum is focused on specific anatomical systems.

The Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) currently requires that occupational therapy students complete Level 1 fieldwork (typically two 40-hour clinical observations) and Level 2 fieldwork. The Level 2 fieldwork requires a minimum of 24 weeks of clinical experience, typically split into 12-week placements in two different settings. 

Occupational therapists have less specific basic standards, and the curriculum seeks to train practitioners as generalists. They are required to know a variety of theories, models, and frameworks that guide occupational therapy service delivery. The field also emphasizes an awareness of the socioeconomic factors that affect patients.

Licenses for Physical Therapists and Occupational Therapists

All physical therapists must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) and occupational therapists must pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). Both exams cost several hundred dollars which cover the cost of the test, transferring the score to the desired state(s), and state licensure application(s). Furthermore, test prep courses and study aids can be purchased at additional and varying costs.

Once someone passes the test and they are eligible for licensing in all 50 states (but some states may have additional requirements for applicants). Physical therapists and occupational therapists must follow state guidelines to maintain licensure. They may also acquire continuing education units (CEUs) that can be done through attending courses, conferences, and seminars.

Practice and Certifications

Let’s learn more about physical therapy and occupational therapy certifications

Physical therapists and occupational therapists share many of the same practice environments. Also, they can work as generalists with patients of different ages and diagnoses in the following areas:

  • Acute care
  • Inpatient and outpatient facilities
  • Long-term care
  • Skilled nursing institutions
  • Schools
  • Home health

However, both fields can perform specialized work in different settings and populations such as:

  • In-home care for infants and toddlers with developmental delays.
  • Veterans Affairs hospitals with veterans who suffered spinal cord injuries.
  • Clinics with patients who need custom orthotics or wheelchairs.
  • Farms with children with autism receiving hippotherapy.
  • Clinics with patients who have hand injuries.
  • Simulated work environments to rehabilitate employees who were injured on the job.

Practitioners can receive several certifications, but only a few are board-certified. Occupational therapists can receive AOTA Board Certification in:

  • Gerontology (BCG)
  • Mental Health (BCMH)
  • Pediatrics (BCP)
  • Physical Rehabilitation (BCPR)

Also, they can receive AOTA Specialty Certification in:

  • Driving and Community Mobility (SCDCM)
  • Environmental Modification (SCEM)
  • Feeding, Eating, and Swallowing (SCFES)
  • Low Vision (SCLV)
  • School Systems (SCSS)

Physical therapists can receive APTA Specialist Certification in:

  • Cardiovascular and Pulmonary (CCS)
  • Clinical Electrophysiology (ECS)
  • Geriatrics (GCS)
  • Neurology (NCS)
  • Orthopedics (OCS)
  • Pediatrics (PCS)
  • Sports (SCS)
  • Women’s Health (WCS)
  • Oncology 

Other specialty areas not certified by the AOTA or APTA include hand therapy, wound care, burn care, lymphedema management, assistive technology, biofeedback, and psychiatric rehabilitation.

Get Easy Access to the Best Medical Interventions

What is the difference between a physical therapist and an occupational therapist? The distinction is now clear. Do you need the best physical therapy or occupational therapy? Moving With Hope has a highly experienced team of healthcare professionals including excellent physical therapists and occupational therapists. We will work with your medical team to develop a comprehensive treatment plan that’s customized to your requirements. So contact us today to begin the journey to achieving your health goals.

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