Allied Health Guides

Occupational vs. Physical Therapist: What's the Difference?

Amanda Petersen, RRT
November 1, 2023
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Occupational therapists (OTs) and physical therapists (PTs) are key members of the healthcare team with a single objective – help patients function better independently. Though both professions have a similar primary goal, they are fundamentally different in how they practice. If you’re considering a career in either field, it’s important to understand the difference between an occupational and physical therapist. 

What Is the Difference Between Occupational and Physical Therapy? 

The main difference between the two professions is that occupational therapists help patients with their ability to perform activities of daily living on their own, and physical therapists help patients with mobility. Each discipline has some overlap with the other, but ultimately the professions have unique differences. 

Diagram contrasting Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy. OT emphasizes independence in daily activities, addresses cognitive, physical, and emotional health, and improves fine motor skills. PT emphasizes mobility, strength, and addresses muscle strength, balance, and coordination, enhancing gross motor skills.
Core focuses and benefits of Occupational Therapy (OT) vs. Physical Therapy (PT)

Job Responsibilities 

What Does an OT Do? 

Occupational therapists focus on helping patients perform everyday activities independently like teeth brushing, eating, dressing, using a smartphone, and driving. OT’s work with people who have cognitive, physical, or emotional health challenges, or individuals who may be recovering from an injury. 

They also perform assessments and develop customized treatment plans designed to help their patients perform activities independently. OT’s work with other members of the healthcare team – including physical therapists – to provide personalized care and effective interventions. 

Check out our Occupational Therapist Career Guide to learn more about becoming an occupational therapist more in depth. 

What Does a PT Do? 

Physical therapists treat patients recovering from musculoskeletal & brain injuries or dealing with pain and muscular imbalances. Functional movement is essential for independence and quality of life. Through hands-on therapy, exercises, and other modalities, PT’s help people strengthen muscles and improve mobility. 

PT’s perform evaluations and create customized treatment plans for individual patient rehabilitation. Their valuable skills and expertise are key to helping patients achieve lower levels of pain and an increased ability to move independently. 

Learn more about what’s involved in becoming a physical therapist in our Physical Therapist Career Guide

Occupational Therapist Salary vs. Physical Therapist Salary

How Much Do OT’s Make? 

The 2022 median pay for occupational therapists was $93,180 per year, or $44.80 per hour with a 12% projected growth for jobs. 

The top industries for OTs include: 

  • Home healthcare services
  • Skilled nursing facilities
  • Hospitals
  • Private offices
  • Elementary and secondary schools 

How Much Do PT’s Make? 

For physical therapists, the 2022 median pay was $97,720 per year, or $46.98 per hour with a 15% projected growth for jobs. 

The top industries for PTs include: 

  • Home healthcare services
  • Nursing and residential care facilities
  • Hospitals
  • Private offices 

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics


You’ll want to be sure to check out our Allied Career Guide for more information on the specifics of each path, but here’s the general steps you can anticipate to take to become an Occupational Therapist or Physical Therapist. 

Occupational Therapist (OT):

  • Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and any needed prerequisites.
  • Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) degree, typically a two-year program.
  • Pass the National Board of Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam.
  • Obtain state licensure.

Physical Therapist (PT):

  • Bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution and required prerequisites.
  • Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree, usually a three-year program.
  • Pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE).
  • Complete any state-specific exams to achieve licensure.


Licensed occupational and physical therapists can get special certifications if they want to focus on certain areas of practice. Because PT’s and OT’s work with all age groups, there are multiple specialties offered by the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) and the Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). 

Physical Therapist Specialties

  1. Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Physical Therapy (CCS)
  2. Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Clinical Electrophysiologic Physical Therapy (ECS)
  3. Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Geriatric Physical Therapy (GCS)
  4. Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Neurologic Physical Therapy (NCS)
  5. Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Oncologic Physical Therapy
  6. Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Orthopaedic Physical Therapy (OCS)
  7. Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Pediatric Physical Therapy (PCS)
  8. Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Sports Physical Therapy (SCS)
  9. Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Women's Health Physical Therapy (WCS)
  10. Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Wound Management (WMS) 

Occupational Therapist Advanced Certifications

  1. Gerontology 
  2. Pediatrics 
  3. Physical Rehabilitation 

Occupational Therapist Micro Credentials

  1. First Response for Low Vision Rehabilitation
  2. Supporting Academic Achievement in School-Based Practice
  3. Supporting Social and Emotional Wellbeing
  4. Supporting Educational Transitions from K-12 to Adulthood
  5. Driving and Community Mobility
  6. Participation, Resilience, and Wellness 
  7. Home Modifications and Falls Prevention
  8. Performing a Home Health Start of Care

Depending on the specialization, exams, continuing education courses, patient care hours, and/or applications may be necessary for the certification. 

Conditions OTs and PTs Treat

From infants to seniors, OT’s and PT’s play an important role in treating patients with a wide range of diseases and conditions – many of which overlap. 

Commonly Treated Conditions – Occupational Therapists

  • Cognitive disorders
  • Sensory processing disorders
  • Developmental delays
  • Stroke
  • Hand injuries
  • Mental health conditions
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Work-related injuries

Commonly Treated Conditions – Physical Therapists

  • Orthopedic conditions
  • Neurological disorders
  • Pediatric conditions & birth defects
  • Sports injuries
  • Cardiopulmonary conditions
  • Burns
  • Stroke 
  • Amputations
  • Pelvic health issues
  • Chronic pain syndromes

From challenges faced by newborns to complex needs of the elderly population, the roles of occupational and physical therapists are essential. Their combined efforts bridge gaps in healthcare – facilitating recovery and a return to normal day-to-day activities. 

Which Path Is Right for You? 

When it comes to becoming an occupational vs. physical therapist, either career is a rewarding path. These professions not only offer competitive salaries but also the deep satisfaction of making a tangible difference in people’s lives. 

While occupational therapists lean more towards enhancing daily life skills, physical therapists focus on restoring and maintaining physical abilities. Reflect on where your interests align, and remember, either choice will place you in a position to impact lives in a positive way.

Find an Occupational Therapist or Physical Therapist Job With Trusted Health 

If you’re looking for a new position as an occupational therapist or a physical therapist, be sure to create a profile with us to check out Trusted Health’s allied health jobs. Find high-paying, flexible positions and get the support you need from a team of healthcare experts supporting you through every step. 

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