Occupational therapists and physical therapists provide services to people of all ages who have disabilities, injuries or other problems that affect their mobility or ability to care for themselves. The two professions have both similarities and differences in terms of daily work, education, wages, licensing and job satisfaction. Physical therapists rate particularly high in job satisfaction, according to the National Opinion Research Center.
Occupational therapy uses daily living activities in therapy. An occupational therapist might teach a patient who has severe arthritis different ways of dressing herself or how to use specialized tools to pull up a zipper or put on her shoes. Disabled children often benefit from play therapy, which the occupational therapist uses to help strengthen muscles and improve coordination. Occupational therapists also perform an assessment of a patient’s home or work environment and make recommendations for changes that can help the patient move around safely or perform tasks.
The focus of physical therapy is to help people improve their mobility and relieve pain. The physical therapist uses exercise to strengthen muscles and improve balance. Stretching, heat and cold applications and other treatments -- called modalities -- help relieve pain. Physical therapists also use various types of equipment, some of which is also used in conventional exercise, to help patients build strength and increase endurance. They often work with people who have been injured and need braces, crutches, or other supportive and adaptive equipment.
Highly educated -- a master’s degree for the occupational therapist and doctorate for the physical therapist, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- these professionals belong to a group called the helping professions, which NORC reports is most likely to have high job satisfaction. NORC notes physical therapists were in the top three professions for job satisfaction in 2007, with an average job satisfaction rate of 78.1 percent. A survey by the American Occupational Therapy Association reported in March 2013 found that 66 percent of AOTA members were unhappy with their work-life balance, however.
Occupational therapists and physical therapists must be licensed in all states. Although certification is voluntary for both groups, many choose to take certification exams as well. Both also have a higher-than-average wage, at $76,400 for occupational therapists and $81,110 for physical therapists, which may affect job satisfaction, especially in hard economic times. People in these professions need compassion and good interpersonal skills to be successful in their daily work, according to the BLS. Exercise is a major component of therapy for both occupational and physical therapists, and both work with various adaptive or supportive types of equipment, such as braces or wheelchairs.
Choosing Between the Two
In choosing between these occupations, income and the length and expense of the educational process may be factors. Physical therapists spend more years in school but also earn slightly more. Both occupations offer the ability to work part time and have multiple work settings, including the opportunity to go into private practice. Of the two, job satisfaction seems to be highest among physical therapists, although both professions are among those with higher-than-average levels of job satisfaction, according to U.S. News and World Report.