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Occupational Therapist Assistant

What is occupational therapy?

The American Occupational Therapy Organization (AOTA) states that occupational therapy as a profession involves “helping people across the lifespan participate in the activities they both want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations)”. And while we often equate the word “occupation” with “job,” an occupational therapy professional sees their clients’ occupations as the basic functions they need to perform in order to live the lives they want to live. So, for working adults, an occupation may truly be a job.  A child’s occupation is learning and developing, an older adult’s occupation is living independently. Occupational therapy professionals identify the specific tasks that each client needs to be capable of performing in order to live his or her life as fully and independently as possible, and then work to eliminate any barriers to their clients’ success.

What is an occupational therapy assistant?

An occupational therapy assistant, or OTA, is a health care professional that delivers treatment under the direction of an occupational therapist. An occupational therapy assistant

What is the working relationship between occupational therapy assistants and occupational therapists?

Occupational therapy assistant programs are usually offered at the associate’s level and prepare graduates to assist supervising occupational therapists in delivering recuperative and rehabilitative therapeutic services to patients or clients. An occupational therapist (OT) completes a master’s program in most states and takes responsibility for the full spectrum of care a patient might need. An OTA and an OT have a close professional relationship in which they work collaboratively to help facilitate their clients’ occupational independence.

While the occupational therapist assumes responsibility for evaluations, assessments, changes in treatment plans and conclusions of care, an occupational therapy assistant can deliver nearly all the treatment, care, and therapy determined appropriate by the attending OT. While an OTA is not allowed to make changes to a treatment plan or complete evaluations, they are indispensable when it comes to actually administering and facilitating therapy.

The professional skills of occupational therapy assistants, and their close working relationship with occupational therapists, are essential to effective therapy and successful outcomes. OTAs must work cohesively within a team and must always adhere to the treatment plan established by the OT specific to each patient or client they see. Additionally, an occupational therapy assistant cannot provide clinical supervision to other OTAs or occupational therapy aides.

What does an occupational therapist assistant who works with adults do?

Occupational therapy assistant jobs may be found in rehabilitation units within hospitals that specialize in orthopedic conditions – where bones are mending– or within units that treat neurological problems, such as stroke or spinal cord injury.

General weakness and loss of function can be problematic for older adults who live through serious illnesses, such as pneumonia or infections, and retraining them to re-master their ability to function independently is also a responsibility taken on by occupational therapy professionals.

In outpatient clinics, OTAs may work as members of a team that treat injuries sustained on the job, or they may help those in need of additional therapy after being discharged from a hospital rehabilitation unit.

Occupational therapy is considered the rehabilitative field that is most knowledgeable with regard to managing injuries sustained to the hands, feet and upper body, so an OTA may work in environments with an OT who specializes in this delicate area.

In the mental health environment, occupational therapy assistants work as part of a team that treats impairment associated with an array of mental health diagnoses. An OTA in this environment will work to help these individuals learn the skills necessary to live successful, self-supporting lives within their communities. In the case of those who need the continued support of medical organizations, occupational therapy professionals help to integrate these individuals into activities that will enhance their quality of life and maximize successful socialization with those around them.

What does an occupational therapist assistant who works with children do?

OTA’s who work with children address the limitations that may accompany an illness or injury that prevents a child from developing normally or living the typical life of a youngster. OTA’s work in pediatric settings where they address the barriers to typical motor development, sensory management or cognitive development. These limitations are addressed through exercise, therapeutic techniques and environmental adaptation. An OTA may also be part of a team that customizes adaptive medical equipment, such as wheelchairs. Occupational therapy assistants may also work in a school setting with a team that helps children function within the classroom so as to allow them to receive a mainstream public school education. 

Occupational Therapy Assistant Program

Are occupational therapy assistants licensed?

Occupational therapy assistants are licensed in nearly all states. As of this writing in 2011, forty states require OTA’s to be licensed. Because occupational therapy assistants work with more fragile populations within medical settings, many states want to ensure the protection of the consumer by licensing individuals who work closely with these populations in a recuperative therapeutic capacity. This allows the state’s licensing body to assure the public of the fact that these professionals have completed education and testing requirements that denote competency and ethics.

Are occupational therapy assistants certified?

The requirement for certification is dependant on the mandates set by each state, as well as on the setting in which an occupational therapy assistant intends to practice. Some states accept national certification in lieu of licensure to ensure

In order to become a certified occupational therapy assistant (COTA), an OTA must pass the certification exam administered by the National Board of Certification for Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). In order to be eligible to sit for the exam, applicants must graduate from occupational therapy assistant schools accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). Transcripts that verify attendance and graduation must be provided to the NBCOT in order to be eligible to take the examination.  Additionally, all fieldwork through clinical rotations must also have been completed.

What’s the difference between a license and national certification?

A license is issued by the state in which an OTA intends to practice. More than seventy-five percent of states within the US currently regulate the practice of occupational therapy assisting through a licensing process. Licensure is granted through a designated state office, and typically requires proof of education, proof of residence, the paying of fees and may also include fingerprinting.

Certification is a credential that is earned by passing the examination administered by the National Board of Certification for Occupational Therapy. In some states licensure is dependent on NBCOT certification. The issuance of a state license may require a state administered examination in addition to the NBCOT exam.

What sort of training do I receive in order to become an occupational therapy assistant?

The fieldwork component of occupational therapy assistant programs is progressive in nature and eventually advances to include all the duties OTAs would perform on the job. There are two levels of fieldwork: Level I field work is mostly observation, Level II fieldwork is where hands-on practice starts evolving.

The Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education requires sixteen weeks of Level II fieldwork. The fieldwork is also broken up into sections to allow students to practice with senior clinicians in a variety of settings. Fieldwork rotations will make an effort to allow an occupational therapy assistant to get as much exposure to as wide a range of diagnoses and patient populations as possible.

What can be expected from occupational therapy assistant programs?

Occupational therapy is a very broad discipline that involves working with a wide array of medical conditions and age groups. While OTAs do learn about many of the more common disorders they will encounter on the job, a large part of the education is spent teaching therapeutic principles and how to apply them.

An OTA will learn about normal and abnormal movement with regard to muscle and joint function. Ambulation is vital to daily function for anybody, so helping to restore this function is among the key occupations facilitated by occupational therapy assistants. Retraining clients in the ability to walk, transfer and move in the ways necessary to perform daily activities safely is integral.  Occupational therapist assistants will find themselves applying exercise principles as well as neurologic retraining through neuromuscular activities that involve coordinating thought patterns with physical movement.

An OTA will study developmental theory and practices to facilitate the therapy of pediatric patients and explore some aspects of developmental cognition and sensory development. Occupational therapy plays a large role in the treatment of children with congenital conditions or those that suffer illness or injury when very young, and the therapeutic principles applied to a developing body are very different from those applied to adults.

Additionally, an OTA will learn how to teach and retrain ADLs, or the activities of daily living. What these activities are vary based on the age and needs of the patient or client, but they can be everything from simply getting dressed and performing personal care, to cooking and maintaining a house. They may also include job-related activities, or the ability to use public transport. While the treatment plan is set by the occupational therapist, an OTA is often the person who executes the treatment. This means the training OTAs participate in is thorough and challenging, and ultimately develops a professional with strong interpersonal skills who is well able to take on these responsibilities with the intent of improving the quality of clients’ lives.

Occupational Therapy Assistant Jobs

How do I know if becoming an occupational therapy assistant is the right choice for me?

If you’re thinking about a career in occupational therapy, you’ve probably already found yourself inspired by the thought of helping people maximize their occupational capabilities so as to experience the freedom that comes with a greater level of mobility and independence. If the idea of being able to help facilitate someone’s recovery from debilitating limitations is compelling to you, and if you have the patient and caring spirit that is required of those who dedicate tireless hours to the service of others, than you’re cut out for a career as an occupational therapy assistant.

Before applying to an OTA program, do some research. First, try to volunteer or do an observation at a local hospital, clinic or

Where do occupational therapy assistants work?

Occupational therapy assistants work in hospitals, rehabilitation units, home health agencies, outpatient clinics or skilled nursing facilities. OTAs who work with children might work in early outreach programs, public schools, pediatric hospitals or rehabilitation units. Occupational therapy professionals are also very involved in the successful treatment of people with mental health challenges, so OTAs often find themselves working in psychiatric hospitals or clinics.

There are additional employment opportunities in less clinical environments such as teaching positions in OTA programs, or even rehabilitation based administrative roles.

Who kinds of clients do occupational therapy assistants work with?

An OTA can work with just about anyone. From the child with cerebral palsy who needs therapy to develop a functional neuromuscular system, to the elderly woman who has broken a hip, to the adult man who sustained an injury on the job. Each of these people is in need of therapeutic intervention to help them achieve optimal function, and facilitating this is the very definition of an occupational therapist assistant’s job. An OTA may work with fragile and delicate patients in an acute care setting within a hospital, or with men and women recovering from injuries so that they can get back to work. An OTA may work with soldiers and veterans returning from war with debilitating injuries, or they may work with infants showing signs of neuromuscular disorders. Because the variety of patients in need of recuperative therapy is almost endless, occupational therapy assistant jobs are uniquely dynamic, as well as fun and challenging.

What is the job outlook for an occupational therapy assistant?

According to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job growth for OTAs is much higher than average, with anticipated growth of 30 percent by 2018. Increased access to health care, an aging population, and a large number of veterans returning from war means that the number of people seeking the rehabilitative services of occupational therapy assistants will be increasing steadily in the years to come.

Are occupational therapy assistants satisfied with their careers?

Occupational therapy professionals, along with physical therapy professionals, consistently rate their careers as very satisfying. Good earning potential and job security combined with a strong sense of accomplishment and contribution makes a career in occupational therapy rewarding and satisfying.

Do occupational therapy assistants have opportunities for career growth?

Occupational therapy assistants may find opportunities in personnel management within departments and organizations where they supervise other OTAs or provide administrative support for rehabilitation managers. An OTA may become the senior therapist for fieldwork placement students from local OTA departments or colleges. An OTA can also decide to get further formal education and training to become an occupational therapist.

Are there professional organizations that support the careers of an OTA?

The American Occupational Therapy Association is the best-known national organization that supports the profession of occupational therapy. AOTA assumes a role of centralizing information for the profession, advocating for the profession when discussing national health care policy, and making efforts to improve access to health care and rehabilitation services for the nation’s population. Members of the occupational therapy profession can choose to join AOTA to connect with other professionals so as to better maintain an awareness of changes in the profession including legislation that improves the public’s access to the services of occupational therapists and their assistants.

Occupational Therapy Assistant Salaries

What is the average occupational therapy assistant salary?

Although pay can vary for any occupation, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the mean annual wage for occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) was $57,260 as of May 2014 data. However, the median wage for those within the top 10 percent of earners was $76,790 while the median wage for those in the lowest 10 percent was $36,420, according to the BLS. Salaries can differ based on time on the job, experience and certification. The state in which an OTA is employed can also affect pay. In fact, the BLS reports that the mean wages were highest for employees in these states:

  • Nevada: $100,260
  • Texas: $70,610
  • California: $66,580
  • Maryland: $65,350
  • New Jersey: $64,040

What are the common employment classifications for occupational therapy assistants?

Occupational therapy assistants often choose from various employment classifications. While a professional may seek full-time employment that includes vacation time, sick time and health benefits, others may seek part-time employment. A common classification of therapists is the per diem category. Per diem means "per day." Many organizations find that they need backup for their regular therapists in the event of illness, vacations or fluctuations in the clinical caseload. A health care organization will try to minimize the impact on patients when a therapist needs to be off or away, so they may elect to call a per diem therapist.

Because work is unpredictable for a per diem therapist, and because the hours a per diem therapist works don't usually meet the minimum requirements for leave or health benefits, the hourly wage for a per diem therapist is often higher than a regular therapist who has more secure work and is eligible for benefits. While the decision to accept a regular position over a per diem position is a personal one, many people in the field appreciate the flexibility. In fact, it's not uncommon for someone to have a regular job but also be a per diem therapist at another organization for when they want to work extra hours.

Is this profession in high demand?

The BLS reports that job opportunities for occupational therapy assistants are expected to grow by 43 percent from 2012 to 2022. This growth is much faster than average and could result in 12,900 positions becoming available during this time. Driving job demand will be the growing elderly population in the U.S. who will need more services to treat conditions related to arthritis and stroke. OTAs -- and aides -- can be important in providing them with help and assistance.

Also, occupational therapy assistants will continue to be needed to help provide care to children and adults who have developmental disabilities, including autism. More people should have access to health care coverage, and therefore occupational therapy services, due to changes in federal law expanding coverage benefits. Additionally, therapists may feel that they can save costs by employing an occupational therapy assistant to carry out parts of a prescribed treatment plan, rather than the therapists doing it themself.

Is there room for advancement as an occupational therapy assistant?

Experience is the biggest factor that influences earning potential for an occupational therapy assistant, and this, of course comes with time. Because occupational therapy assistant programs provide training that is broad in scope in order to produce graduates with the widest number of employment options, there is much to learn about specific populations and specialized therapeutics. An OTA who decides to pursue additional training and continued education that includes new methods of therapy may be well positioned to negotiate a higher salary.

However, occupational therapy assistants can also seek out certification that provides testament to the quality and level of their skills. In fact, this is typically required to seek licensure in a state, along with other requirements. Most often, a skills and knowledge examination is taken through the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT), and continuing education is needed to maintain certification.

OTAs could also find a position in which they are promoted to a head manager or a role to overseeing other occupational therapy assistants. Finally, those who truly enjoy the field but are looking to advance their knowledge, skills and pay may want to become an occupational therapist or physical therapist, although much more education is required.

What are the continuing education requirements?

Most states that license OTAs also require regular continuing education in order to renew the license. Continuing education requirements are typically 16-24 hours of courses every two years, although each state sets its own requirements. Some employers even pay for continuing education as part of a benefits package. Occupational therapy assistants have some choices when it comes to continuing education, so they often deepen their knowledge and expertise specific to the population that is served where they work. Becoming an expert in some of the therapeutic principles that are essential to the health care organization demonstrates value and commitment to the organization, which helps contribute to salary increases.

Occupational therapy as a profession is regulated differently in different states with regard to the use of physical agents and modalities, commonly referred to by the acronym, PAMs. PAMs include the application of heat, ice, ultrasound and electric stimulation. Authorization to use these agents during therapy is regulated on a state level, but many occupational therapists find their professional range is enhanced by getting a PAMs certification as required by their state. OTAs also often find that completing the coursework to be PAMs certified is a benefit to their organization.

Do occupational therapy assistants ever bill insurance companies?

While an outpatient clinic might be billing insurance companies directly, an occupational therapy assistant would not be in a position to do this. As the treatment plan is developed and overseen by the lead occupational therapist, an OTA would not bill for his or her own services directly. The treatment provided by an OTA is under the umbrella of the occupational therapist and as such, responsibility for billing would fall to someone else.


Occupational Therapy Assistant School

What types of programs are available to an aspiring occupational therapy assistant?

There are many programs available to students interested in pursuing a degree in occupational therapy assisting offered through both public and private colleges. Occupational therapy assistant programs are also offered through schools that specialize in allied health careers, and those that emphasize vocational programs.

Many programs offer multiple enrollment tracks allowing students to choose between full-time and part-time schooling, and many offer evening programs for those who are working to put themselves through school.

Do I need to attend an accredited occupational therapy assistant school?

In order to be eligible to take the National Board of Certification for Occupational Therapy (NBCOT)

What are the admissions criteria for occupational therapy assistant programs?

Occupational therapy assistant programs don’t typically have very strict admissions requirements.  Most programs require students to have graduated from high school, or to have completed an equivalent GED program.

Some programs do have prerequisite standards that require the incoming student to have taken courses in biology, anatomy and physiology, and to have a specified minimum grade point average. In some cases, pre-entrance examinations must be passed to demonstrate practical knowledge of these admission eligibility requirements.

What types of courses are included in occupational therapy assistant programs?

The first half of an occupational therapy assistant program is generally oriented around introduction to the field of occupational therapy.  This would involve gaining familiarity with the terminology, the patients with whom an OTA would work and the therapeutic principles an OTA would incorporate into daily practice.  These programs will also include courses that introduce students to normal function and movement, human development and psychology in the context of occupational therapeutic intervention.

In the second half of an OTA program, courses become more challenging and teach more advanced therapeutic principles including kinesiology, which is the study of human movement. This latter half would also include coursework that teaches documentation principles and writing techniques, as properly recording assessment, and annotating progress throughout therapy sessions is an absolutely vital component of the therapeutic process.

Aspiring occupational therapy assistant students should also expect courses on ethics in medical practice, as well as professional considerations in the field of occupational therapy.

Do I work with patients while training to become an occupational therapy assistant?

Definitely! Occupational therapy assistant jobs are very hands on. Helping people perform acts of self-care and facilitating the process by which a patient re-learns lost or impaired abilities requires these professionals to be up-close and personal with the clients and patients they’re serving. As a result, there are rigorous fieldwork requirements established by OTA programs.

An occupational therapy assistant will complete sixteen weeks of fieldwork through the course of their education. These field positions are broken up into several blocks, and are assigned in various locations so that students get the benefit of working with a variety of clinical populations.

Clinical rotations OTA students participate in early in their training are oriented more towards observation and service delivery under the direct supervision of an occupational therapist, while rotations that students participate in as their training progresses are more demanding.  These advanced training rotations require students, as directed, to begin assuming larger caseloads while performing all the duties that an OTA would be expected to perform in a professional setting, including documenting assessments, writing reports, and collaborating with other team members.

Can I take occupational therapy assistant classes online?

Given the hands-on nature of the occupational therapy assistant program and the large portion of fieldwork that is essential to the program, there are no fully web-based programs available that meet the ACOTE accreditation requirements. However, more and more programs are beginning to offer some of the lecture classes through an online format, and at many colleges, prerequisite courses that do not have a lab component may be taken online.

Request Information from Occupational Therapy Assistant Colleges

The occupational therapy assistant degree program you need in order to get your career started is listed below among many occupational therapy assistant schools, colleges, and universities. This page was designed to provide you a resource to find what you need quickly and efficiently. Request information from several of the occupational therapist assistant schools, colleges, and universities below in order to find the right program for you.

Sources:

  1. Occupational Therapy Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014. http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes312011.htm
  2. Occupational Therapy Assistants, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Jan. 8, 2014. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapy-assistants-and-aides.htm

Occupational Therapist Assistant Schools