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A Gray Area: Physical Versus Occupational Therapy

Nov 07, 2018 • by Joey Burgess, Alvernia University
Citizen Submitted Story

We all know someone who has had physical therapy. Whether it be a grandparent, a friend, or even yourself, and whether it was in a hospital, rehab facility, or at an outpatient clinic. Everyone knows they are receiving physical therapy, but most people do not realize they are most likely receiving occupational therapy as well.

Occupational therapy is in an odd position in the American healthcare system; the profession just celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2017, it is one of the fastest growing job markets in the United States, yet everyone I tell that my major is occupational therapy, the response I get back every time is, “what’s that?” or “do you help people find jobs?”

According to AOTA.org, occupational therapy is “the only profession that helps people across the lifespan to do the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities. Occupational therapists promote health and prevent – or live better with – injury, illness, or disability.”

But how does this definition differ from physical therapy? The main difference is that physical therapy is focused on improving the movement of the human body, and occupational therapy is focused on improving the ability to perform activities of daily living.

Becky Burgess, an occupational therapy graduate student at Misericordia University, recently completed her geriatrics level II fieldwork. She says, “For example, from my experience in fieldwork, the physical therapist would determine that the client needed to use a rollator while walking, and my task as the occupational therapist was to help the client adjust to using a rollator, like practicing using it around their bedroom and bathroom.”

There is a gray area between the two professions where they tend to overlap. Both occupations will often work in rehab facilities and work with the same clients. Becky, now in her pediatrics level II fieldwork says, “a physical therapist will support my client in a standing or sitting position, while I help my client complete a fine motor skills activity,” Both professions educate people on how to prevent and avoid injuries, as well as teaching people about the healing process.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of occupational therapists is projected to grow by 24% from 2016 to 2026, a much faster increase than the average of all occupations. If occupational therapy is such a fast-growing profession, especially with an aging population, how is it that most people have no idea what it is?

Telling people that in your rehab session today you walked further, or they put more weight on the machine is more glamorous than telling people “I learned how to clean myself” or “I don’t need someone to dress me anymore!” Regaining the strength to walk, primarily a focus of physical therapists is seen by people as more essential to humanity than the ability to wipe their behinds, mainly a focus of occupational therapists.

It is important for occupational therapists to educate their clients on their duties, attend conferences to promote the profession and advocate their practice. Physical therapists cannot do an occupational therapists’ job, and vice versa. Occupational therapists must fight to be acknowledged unlike most healthcare professions, but their job is essential for the treatment of people’s injuries, illnesses, and disabilities.

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