Career Guide for Occupational Therapist Assistants

Occupational therapist assistants help provide rehabilitation services with an occupational therapist. Growth in this profession is expected to grow tremendously and many receive training on the job.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to have a successful career as an occupational therapy assistant.

Occupational Therapist Assistant Summary

  • Typical entry-level education for occupational therapist assistants is an associate degree; in contrast, occupational therapist aides usually receive their training on the job.
  • Many States regulate the practice of occupational therapist assistants either by licensing, registration, or certification; requirements vary by State.
  • Employment is projected to grow much faster than average as demand for occupational therapist services rises and as occupational therapists increasingly use assistants and aides.
  • Job prospects should be very good for occupational therapist assistants; jobseekers holding only a high school diploma might face keen competition for occupational therapist aide jobs.

Working as an Occupational Therapist Assistant

Occupational therapist assistants and aides work under the supervision of occupational therapists to provide rehabilitative services to persons with mental, physical, emotional, or developmental impairments. The ultimate goal is to improve clients’ quality of life and ability to perform daily activities. For example, occupational therapist assistants help injured workers re-enter the labor force by teaching them how to compensate for lost motor skills or help individuals with learning disabilities increase their independence.

Occupational therapist assistants help clients with rehabilitative activities and exercises outlined in a treatment plan developed in collaboration with an occupational therapist. Activities range from teaching the proper method of moving from a bed into a wheelchair to the best way to stretch and limber the muscles of the hand. Assistants monitor an individual’s activities to make sure that they are performed correctly and to provide encouragement. They also record their client’s progress for the occupational therapist. If the treatment is not having the intended effect, or the client is not improving as expected, the therapist may alter the treatment program in hopes of obtaining better results. In addition, occupational therapist assistants document the billing of the client’s health insurance provider.

Occupational therapist aides typically prepare materials and assemble equipment used during treatment. They are responsible for a range of clerical tasks, including scheduling appointments, answering the telephone, restocking or ordering depleted supplies, and filling out insurance forms or other paperwork. Aides are not regulated by States, so the law does not allow them to perform as wide a range of tasks as occupational therapist assistants.

Work environment. Occupational therapist assistants and aides need to have a moderate degree of strength because of the physical exertion required to assist patients. For example, assistants and aides may need to lift patients. Constant kneeling, stooping, and standing for long periods also are part of the job.

The hours and days that occupational therapist assistants and aides work vary by facility and whether they are full time or part time. For example, many outpatient therapy offices and clinics have evening and weekend hours to coincide with patients’ schedules.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

An associate degree from an accredited academic program is generally required to qualify for occupational therapist assistant jobs. In contrast, occupational therapist aides usually receive most of their training on the job. Many States regulate the practice of occupational therapist assistants either by licensing, registration, or certification; requirements vary by State.

Education and training. Occupational therapist assistants must attend a school accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) in order to sit for the national certifying exam for occupational therapist assistants. There were 135 ACOTE accredited occupational therapist assistant programs in 2009.

The first year of study typically involves an introduction to healthcare, basic medical terminology, anatomy, and physiology. In the second year, courses are more rigorous and usually include occupational therapy courses in areas such as mental health, adult physical disabilities, gerontology, and pediatrics. Students also must complete at least 16 weeks of supervised fieldwork in a clinic or community setting.

Applicants to occupational therapist assistant programs can improve their chances of admission by taking high school courses in biology and health and by performing volunteer work in nursing care facilities, occupational or physical therapists’ offices, or other healthcare settings.

Occupational therapist aides usually receive most of their training on the job. Qualified applicants must have a high school diploma, strong interpersonal skills, and a desire to help people in need. Applicants may increase their chances of getting a job by volunteering their services, thus displaying initiative and aptitude to the employer.

Licensure. Forty States, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia regulate the practice of occupational therapist assistants either by licensing, registration, or certification. In addition, eligibility requirements vary by State. Contact your State’s licensing board for specific regulatory requirements on occupational therapist assistants.

Some States have additional requirements for therapist assistants who work in schools or early intervention programs. These requirements may include education-related classes, an education practice certificate, or early intervention certification.

Certification and other qualifications. Certification is voluntary. The National Board for Certifying Occupational Therapy certifies occupational therapist assistants through a national certifying exam. Those who pass the test are awarded the title Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA). In some States, the national certifying exam meets requirements for regulation, but other States have their own licensing exam.

Occupational therapist assistants are expected to continue their professional development by participating in continuing education courses and workshops in order to maintain certification. A number of States require continuing education as a condition of maintaining licensure.

Assistants and aides must be responsible, patient, and willing to take directions and work as part of a team. Furthermore, they should be caring and want to help people who are not able to help themselves.

Advancement. Occupational therapist assistants may advance into administration positions. They might organize all the assistants in a large occupational therapy department or act as the director for a specific department such as sports medicine. Some assistants go on to teach classes in accredited occupational therapist assistant academic programs or lead health risk reduction classes for the elderly.

With proper formal education, occupational therapist aides can become occupational therapist assistants.

Employment as an Occupational Therapist Aide

Occupational therapist assistants and aides held about 34,400 jobs in 2008, with assistants holding about 26,600 jobs and aides holding approximately 7,800 jobs. About 28 percent of jobs for assistants and aides were in offices of other health practitioners, 27 percent were in hospitals, and 20 percent were in nursing care facilities. The rest were primarily in community care facilities for the elderly, home healthcare services, individual and family services, and government agencies.

Job Outlook

Employment is expected to grow much faster than average as demand for occupational therapy services rises and as occupational therapists increasingly use assistants and aides. Job prospects should be very good for occupational therapist assistants. Jobseekers holding only a high school diploma might face keen competition for occupational therapist aide jobs.

Employment change. Employment of occupational therapist assistants and aides is expected to grow by 30 percent from 2008 to 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations. Demand for occupational therapist assistants and aides will continue to rise because of the increasing number of individuals with disabilities or limited function.

The growing elderly population is particularly vulnerable to chronic and debilitating conditions that require therapeutic services. These patients often need additional assistance in their treatment, making the roles of assistants and aides vital. Also, the large baby-boom generation is entering the prime age for heart attacks and strokes, further increasing the demand for cardiac and physical rehabilitation. In addition, future medical developments should permit an increased percentage of trauma victims to survive, creating added demand for therapy services. Demand for therapy may be dampened by Federal legislation imposing limits on reimbursement for therapy services.

Demand from adolescents will increase due to expansion of the school-age population and Federal legislation mandating funding for education for the disabled.

Occupational therapists are expected to increasingly employ assistants to reduce the cost of occupational therapy services. Once a patient is evaluated and a treatment plan is designed by the therapist, the occupational therapist assistant can provide many aspects of treatment, as prescribed by the therapist.

Job prospects. Opportunities for occupational therapist assistants should be very good. However, individuals with only a high school diploma may face keen competition for occupational therapist aide jobs. Occupational therapist assistants and aides with prior experience working in an occupational therapy office or other healthcare setting will have the best job opportunities. In addition to employment growth, job openings will result from the need to replace occupational therapist assistants and aides who leave the occupation permanently over the 2008-18 period.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
Occupational therapist assistants and aides 31-2010 34,400 44,800 10,300 30
Occupational therapist assistants 31-2011 26,600 34,600 7,900 30
Occupational therapist aides 31-2012 7,800 10,200 2,400 31
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Occupational Therapist Assistants

Median annual wages of occupational therapist assistants were $48,230 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $39,240 and $57,810. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $31,150, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $65,160. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of occupational therapist assistants in May 2008 were:

Home health care services $53,090
Offices of other health practitioners 50,810
Nursing care facilities 50,790
General medical and surgical hospitals 45,760
Elementary and secondary schools 41,850

Median annual wages of occupational therapist aides were $26,960 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $21,930 and $33,340. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $17,850, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $46,910. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of occupational therapist aides in May 2008 were:

Specialty (except psychiatric and substance abuse) hospitals $30,400
General medical and surgical hospitals 27,750
Offices of other health practitioners 26,850
Elementary and secondary schools 26,820
Nursing care facilities 25,790

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