What is the Difference Between Occupational and Physical Therapy

Patient working with Occupational Therapist, learn the difference between occupational and physical therapy.

The health care industry encompasses many different health professions, all of them dedicated to the treatment and management of various conditions, illnesses, and disabilities. Sometimes, health care professions are perceived as so closely aligned that the unique aspects of each one may not be clear, even to a prospective patient.

Occupational therapy and physical therapy are examples — two health care professions, closely related, but each one a distinct health care specialty employing different skill sets to serve patients with a broad range of needs. Laurie Stelter, Assistant Professor in the Master of Occupational Therapy program at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Health Professions (TTUHSC SHP), outlines what these vital health care professionals do and answers the question: What is the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy?

Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy

To the casual observer, occupational therapy and physical therapy might appear to be very similar disciplines. While Stelter happily acknowledges that both professions often work alongside each other, there are significant differences between the two roles.

“We can often be seen working side-by-side in similar settings, often addressing similar conditions but our roles are actually very different,” says Stelter. “In physical therapy, the focus is on body mechanics and how body systems impact motion, positioning, strength, balance, and range of motion — how much joints are able to move in the directions that they are supposed to move. Physical therapy is designed to facilitate that body of movement. Physical therapists may also deal with the pain that may hinder a body movement but it's really about getting people back to moving again.”

While physical therapists focus on improving physical mobility and function, occupational therapists have a more holistic approach to patient care.

“When I’m asked to define occupational therapy, I have a long and short answer,” says Stelter. “My short answer is that occupational therapists help individuals who have an illness or injury get back to doing the things that they want or need to do.”

However, to really understand the full scope of the occupational therapist’s role in providing health care services, you’ve really got to listen to Stelter’s longer explanation.

“Occupational therapists look holistically at how physical, cognitive, social, psychological, and even environmental factors impact participation in meaningful and purposeful activities,” says Stelter. “Some of those activities are what we call activities of daily living — things like bathing, dressing, and grooming. Our focus is not just on getting patients stronger, more balanced, or able to move a body part better.  We also look at what activities they are going to use that movement for. We are not just going to walk with a patient but we are going to walk with that patient to the bathroom, to help them feel safer so they don't fall and they can toilet themselves and bathe themselves for instance.”

Occupational therapists then look at the more complex “instrumental activities” of daily living which might include things like cleaning your home, shopping, managing your money, or managing your medications. In short, they help patients live the best possible lives that they can.

No Such Thing as a Typical Occupational Therapy Client

According to Stelter, the field of occupational therapy is so wide that there is no such thing as a typical client. It's this variety that sets occupational therapy apart from other health care professions. Patients may need occupational therapy to treat problems arising as a result of many different conditions.

“It could be physical — such as an injury sustained in a motor vehicle accident,” says Stelter. “It could be a cognitive issue, something that has impacted the brain such as a stroke or Alzheimer’s disease. It could also be psychological, individuals who have conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. Some of those symptoms can keep people from doing the things that they need or want to do — and we can help them.”

Patient working with Occupational Therapist, learn the difference between occupational and physical therapy.

Occupational therapy has no age limitations; it is called upon to help patients — from the very young to the very old —  throughout the lifespan. “Even children may have injuries or conditions that keep them from doing everyday activities like play, self-care, and some social activities,” Stelter points out. “A child born with cerebral palsy or a child who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may have some things that are keeping them from fulfilling their meaningful activities. So we really look at those routines, habits, and life roles of patients and help them get back to doing those important things.”

Due to the diverse nature of occupational therapy, occupational therapists can be found working in equally diverse locations.

“You’ll find occupational therapists working in hospitals, outpatient rehab clinics, inpatient rehabilitation facilities, skilled nursing facilities, and pediatric clinics — but we are not just in medical care settings,” says Stelter. “You’ll also see us in more community-based settings. We’re in schools, social service agencies, psychiatric hospitals and other areas where you may not see physical therapy.”

To highlight the varied nature of the profession, Stelter references the areas of occupational therapy practice she currently works in alongside her role at TTUHSC SHP.

“I have a couple of different things I do in my practice,” says Stelter. “The main one is working at a psychiatric hospital where I facilitate a few groups a week. These are primarily centered around helping individuals think about their daily routines and activities and promoting a lifestyle that helps them become healthier. I also contract with a local provider that helps adults with intellectual disabilities. We are trying to keep these individuals from having to go to a more secure setting, or even jail, as a result of extreme behavioral issues. I work with this team to review the kind of challenges that certain individuals are dealing with and provide recommendations that might help keep them living in the community.”

What Makes a Good Occupational Therapist?

Stelter believes that many students are drawn to a career in occupational therapy through a personal experience of the profession.

“For me personally (and I have found it to be true for a lot of the students who come into our program), it was having experience with family members who had various injuries and conditions when I was growing up,” says Stelter. “At the time, I didn't necessarily know that there was an occupational therapist on board or even a need for occupational therapy but I did have memories of how important those health care providers were coming in and interacting with my family.”

Stelter explains how it was the practical side of occupational therapy which impacted her family members’ everyday lives that inspired her to follow a career in the profession.

“As I got older and I was deciding what I wanted to do with my life, I knew I wanted to do something in health care,” says Stelter. “I had seen occupational therapists in action and was just drawn to how important to everyday real-life their work was. To me, occupational therapy was very functional. It wasn't just about moving a body part but what a person is going to do with that body part once they got moving. It was to help them get dressed, it was to teach them a new skill — that's what really attracted me to the profession.”

While occupational therapists, just like their clients, come from all walks of life, Stelter believes they typically share several common traits.

“Of course, I think occupational therapists need to have compassion for individuals who are dealing with challenging circumstances, such as physical impairment or any other kind of health condition,” says Stelter. “They also need to be good problem solvers. So much of what we do is collaborating with our clients around what they are struggling with, what their goals are, and taking the time to figure out together how to best meet their needs.”

Creativity is considered to be extremely important in the field of occupational therapy.

“So much of what we do is thinking outside of the box in some very complex situations,” says Stelter. “We are often designing and creating new types of adaptive equipment and modifying things for our clients so that they can use them in slightly different ways than you would typically. Creativity really comes into play in those types of situations.”

Occupational therapists also need to be highly resilient to deal effectively with patients undergoing difficult challenges.

“Not everybody is a ‘nice’ client,” says Stelter. "You signed up to be there but they did not necessarily sign-up to be there. Learning how to interact with clients who have various challenges with their interpersonal skills is definitely something that we are trained in. Communication skills and emotional intelligence play a big role in developing a positive rapport with clients.”

According to Stelter, many students begin developing these skills long before enrolling in the Master of Occupational Therapy program at TTUHSC SHP.

“All the students that we enroll in our program have already graduated with a bachelor’s degree from college,” says Stelter. “So by the time they get to us, they are usually in their early 20s or later — so they’ve got a bit of maturity to them and they have had a long time to think through what career they want to pursue.”

Balancing Theory with Practice

Students in the Master of Occupational Therapy program can expect to be fully immersed in both the theoretical approaches and practical skills of the profession.

“We value theory and think it’s very important for our students to understand the big picture perspective of things,” says Stelter. “But we also want our students to be prepared for the everyday realities of the various health care environments they are going to be working in. We quickly get them going on perfecting practical, very hands-on tasks. In our lab courses, we practice transferring or moving somebody from a wheelchair to a bed or how to train an individual who has lost an arm on how to dress themselves. We simulate those situations and practice those necessary skills within our curriculum and our courses.

What Is Occupational Therapy? A Secure Career Choice

According to Stelter, occupational therapy is a solid career choice with open positions ready to be filled following graduation.

“Right now, our profession is very strong,” says Stelter. “Oftentimes you'll see occupational therapy in those ‘top career lists’ as a great job to get into with good opportunities. If you are an occupational therapist and you want a job, there are usually choices available. Typically, for our students, I would say 99% of them have a job within six months of graduation. The job searches that last six months are more about an individual being picky about where they want to go more than an absence of opportunity.”

The need for qualified occupational therapists is particularly acute in rural areas such as West Texas.

“There is a challenge, especially in smaller communities like the area around Lubbock where we are located,” says Stelter. “There are a lot of small communities that have difficulty recruiting occupational therapists as well as other types of health care professionals. They may have a local nursing home or hospital or they have children with various needs in the community and finding access to those types of health care services can be a challenge.”

This is a challenge TTUHSC SHP is currently trying to address by focusing their student attention on opportunities in rural locations.

“We try to give our students experiences and show them the value of providing services to a population that doesn't have a lot of access to quality service; we hope that they catch that as a personal vision for themselves,” says Stelter. “We recruit a lot of students from the bigger cities across Texas. A lot of them go back to those bigger cities after they are educated but some of them do choose to stay and work in smaller communities where they are really needed.”

Questions Potential Occupational Therapy Students Should Ask Themselves

According to Stelter, there are a number of questions a potential student should ask before enrolling in an occupational therapy program.

“They should think about their ability to interact with people facing challenging situations,” says Stelter. “They need to know that they can solve problems and maintain a cool head in high-stress and often chaotic situations.”

Prospective students also need to be very self-aware and willing and able to make changes that will help them become a better occupational therapist.

“Students need to ask themselves — I think this is probably true for any profession — about their willingness to learn new things about themselves and their ability to make changes when they need to,” says Stelter. “If they get into school and they learn that maybe their typical interpersonal approach is not the best way to be an occupational therapist, are they willing to make those types of personal changes so that they become a better therapist who can build a better rapport with clients?”

Learn More

If you are looking for a health care career where you can have a direct impact on a patient’s daily life, occupational therapy may be a great option for you. To learn more about the TTUHSC SHP Master in Occupational Therapy program or to speak with a faculty member about the admission process or arrange a tour of our campus, visit the program page on our website. You can also email us at health.professions@ttuhsc.edu, or call the SHP Office of Admissions and Student Affairs at (806) 743-3220.

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