Occupational TherapyOTA Program

What Does an Occupational Therapy Assistant Do?

Collage image reading "variety is the spice of life" and depicting four scenes are everyday tasks: opening a jar, folding towels, tying shoes, and cooking.

Remember the running joke on the TV show Friends where nobody understood what Chandler did for a living? That’s pretty much what it’s like for those working in the field of occupational therapy (OT). This post tackles common misconceptions about the field and provides an in-depth answer to the question: What does an occupational therapy assistant do?

For starters, we recommend the below elevator speech when you apply to our Online OTA program and people start asking you about the profession. Because trust us, most of the folks you’ll talk to will:

(A) Have never heard of the occupational therapy assistant role.

(B) Consider occupational therapy and physical therapy one and the same. 

(C) Think you are helping people find the right occupation.

Elevator Speech

Occupational therapy focuses on the physical and cognitive aspects of rehabilitation. An OTA works under the direction of an occupational therapist, helping individuals of all ages and abilities develop, recover, or improve the skills they need for daily living and working.

Basic OTA Job Description

Effective patient rehabilitation involves strong collaboration between an occupational therapist (OT) and an occupational therapy assistant (OTA). Because together, they implement therapeutic and/or self-care activities that help patients with disabilities, injuries, or illnesses navigate everyday life.

While the OT evaluates patients and develops their treatment plans, the OTA works directly with patients to help put their plans into action. Treatment often relies on adaptive tools and/or environment modifications to fit the unique needs of a patient.

An OTA typically carries out these types of responsibilities:

  • Contributes to comprehensive care plans for patients
  • Monitors patient activities and document progress
  • Guides patients in the use of special equipment
  • Educates patients and family members on treatment techniques 

OTAs can practice the profession in a wide variety of work settings, including clinics, community care centers, hospitals, nursing care facilities, private practices, and school systems.

What Are Allied Health Professions?

Occupational therapy is part of a distinct group of health professions that serve to treat and rehabilitate individuals of all ages and conditions. Distinct from dentistry, medicine, nursing, and pharmacy, allied health involves a range of diagnostic, technical, therapeutic, and support services in connection with traditional patient care.

Diverse Areas of OTA Practice

OTAs work with patients of all ages who need help overcoming physical and/or cognitive challenges that prevent them from doing the things they want and need to do every day. Occupational therapy services fall within six core practice areas.

1. Children and Youth

Occupational therapy helps children develop life skills, learn self-care activities, and foster relationships with others. Examples include:

  • Helping a teen with autism develop social skills across his or her environment
  • Assisting a young child in developing better hand muscle control for tying his or her shoes
Child working on motor functions in an occupational therapy exercise with an OTA

2. Productive Aging

Occupational therapy helps keep aging adults independent and safe at home and in the community for as long as possible. Examples include:

  • Assisting a dementia patient and his or her family in adapting to memory loss
  • Helping an elderly patient transition from driving to using alternative transportation
OTA assisting elderly patient with gripping a cane

3. Health and Wellness

Occupational therapy uses health and wellness promotion to help patients maximize their capacity to participate in life activities. Examples include:

  • Helping a diabetic adult with hand weakness manage daily insulin shots
  • Helping a teen implement environmental changes to improve his or her quality of sleep

4. Mental Health

Occupational therapy helps children and adults overcome mental health challenges that prevent them from participating in meaningful activities. Examples include:

  • Altering a classroom environment to help decrease sensory overload in children
  • Helping a young adult with an anxiety disorder build effective socialization skills 

5.  Rehabilitation and Disability

Occupational therapy benefits people who have disabilities or are recovering from an injury. Examples include:

  • Teaching a person with Down syndrome how to perform self-care activities
  • Helping an amputee adapt to life with an artificial limb
Occupational therapy assistant working with a young patient on a hands-focused exercise

6. Work and Industry

Occupational therapy promotes success in the workplace by improving the fit between an individual, his/her job tasks, and the environment. Examples include:

  • Helping an office worker with a back injury implement solutions that allow him or her to sit comfortably at a desk
  • Helping an administrative assistant with carpal tunnel syndrome get the tools he or she needs to work on a computer without pain

OTA Career Outlook

According to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall employment of occupational therapy assistants is projected to grow 31% from 2018 to 2028, a much faster rate than the average for all occupations. Also, as of May 2019, the Bureau lists the median annual wage for occupational therapy assistants nationwide as $61,510.

How to Become a Certified OTA

To become a certified occupational therapy assistant (COTA), you must earn an associate degree from an accredited OTA program and pass the national certification exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). We developed our 16-month Online OTA program near Phoenix, Arizona, to help you do just that.

To begin the admission process, all you need is a high school diploma with a 2.5 GPA (or the GED equivalent). Before we can admit you into the program, however, you need to satisfy a series of core requirements.

Harcum College campus

Our full-time OTA program blends online learning with practical experience to provide a flexible, well-rounded education that prepares you to begin your OT career with confidence.

  • Online courses let you study the fundamentals of the profession at your own pace. Instructor deadlines still apply. 
  • Skills labs at our learning site provide a contextual environment for you to practice mental, cognitive, and physical health-based interventions on fictitious patients.
  • Fieldwork in diverse areas of practice provides job shadowing opportunities and real-world experience working with patients.

OTA Career Advancement

In a nutshell, you learn the fundamentals of the profession online, convert that knowledge into psychomotor skills at our learning site, and then tie everything together within the scope of OTA practice via fieldwork.

Ready to Get Started?

If you think you’re a good fit for the profession and our 16-month Online OTA program, contact our admission team today to see if you’re ready for a January, May, or August start date.

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