The spectrum of work for occupational therapy professionals is broad, but the overarching goal is simple: help patients live life to the fullest. Registered occupational therapists (OTRs) and certified occupational therapy assistants (COTAs) help patients with physical, emotional, mental and developmental disabilities to function at their highest possible level every day. Career websites and national magazines ranked occupational therapy among the 10 best careers of 2012. The quickest way into the field is becoming a COTA through one of the more than 200 two-year community college programs that lead to COTA designation.
OTR vs. COTA
While both COTAs and OTRs work directly with patients to administer ongoing treatment plans, only OTRs are licensed to evaluate, diagnose and prescribe. OTRs have at least a master's degree and increasingly enter the field at a doctoral level. Much of their time is consumed with evaluating and diagnosing new patients, while COTAs are often the primary caregiver in carrying out ongoing treatment.
Admission to top-ranked COTA schools is competitive and can be based on entrance exam scores, GPA, essays, interviews and volunteer experience. Serious students should prepare by taking prerequisite classes before applying. Education Portal ranked Texas' Houston Community College System as the United States' top COTA program, with Santa Ana College in California in the number-two position.
Before studying for entry-level employment as a COTA, decide which type of COTA you want to be. Occupational therapy has so many specialties, it can be easy to miss your calling. Check out the American Occupational Therapy Association's website for extensive information, including details on specialties and emerging areas of practice. Find an area that interests you and learn more by shadowing a professional in the workplace then volunteering in a setting that appeals to you.
Job Outlook and Salary
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects demand for COTAs to rise 43 percent between 2010 and 2020, much faster than the 14-percent national average for all occupations. In May 2011, the agency reported 29,310 COTAs were employed nationwide in private practice, nursing care facilities, hospitals, schools and home health care, with an average annual wage of $52,150 or $25.07 per hour. The top 10 percent made more than $70,000.