What Is an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

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Discover the path to becoming an occupational therapy assistant, job opportunities available for OTAs upon graduation, salary, and career progression.

[Featured Image]:  An occupational therapy assistant, wearing a blue uniform and a stethoscope around her neck.  She is standing in an examination room, with white shelves and a white chair and desk.

Occupational therapy assistants (OTA) work under the direction of an occupational therapist to provide a treatment plan for each patient. This may include activities such as teaching a patient the proper way to move from a bed into a wheelchair, do therapeutic exercises, or complete daily living tasks. Occupational therapy assistants may also work with those with developmental disabilities, teaching them skills to be more independent.

Is working as an occupational therapy assistant a good start to pursuing a career as an occupational therapist?

Working as an occupational therapy assistant will typically provide you with the skills and foundational education you need to advance in the career path to an occupational therapist. You will usually gain the required experience should you decide to advance your education or undertake a bridge program. 

What are the primary duties and responsibilities of an occupational therapy assistant?

Occupational therapy assistants are health care professionals who work under the supervision of occupational therapists to help patients recover from injuries and enhance their physical health to perform daily activities effectively. The occupational therapist will diagnose a patient and prescribe a treatment plan. The occupational therapy assistant will then work one-on-one with the patient to perform therapeutic activities and exercises. 

Occupational therapy assistants may also complete basic clerical duties such as appointment scheduling, answering phone calls and emails, collecting patients’ medical history, and ordering medical supplies.

Read more: What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

An occupational therapy assistant supports the occupational therapist with:

  • Therapeutic activities

  • Encouraging patients and ensuring they are doing their therapy exercises properly 

  • Teaching patients how to manage their treatment program

  • Documenting a patient’s progress as required by the occupational therapist

Where do occupational therapy assistants work?

As an occupational therapy assistant, you can find work in various settings, such as schools, medical rehabilitation clinics, physical therapy clinics, hospitals, physicians’ offices, and eldercare facilities. You could also work in occupational therapy clinics, drug and alcohol rehab centers, assisted living facilities, and halfway houses. You can also find employment with home health care agencies assisting patients who have been released from a hospital or rehabilitation facility and need help adapting to their homes. 

How much do occupational therapy assistants earn?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for occupational therapy assistants is $61,730 as of May 2021 [1]. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $46,810, and the highest 10 percent earn more than $80,210.

The BLS provides a breakdown of wages per workplace setting as follows:

  • Home health care environments: $75,070

  • Nursing care facilities: $64,670

  • Private, local, and state hospitals: $61,570

  • Therapy (occupational, physical, speech) and audiologists offices: $61,320

  • Private, local, and state educational services: $49,920 

How do I qualify as an occupational therapy assistant?

The path to becoming an occupational therapy assistant is usually a four-step process involving earning an accredited degree, getting hands-on experience, passing a certification exam, and becoming licensed in your state.

  • Complete an occupational therapy assistant program: The first step to becoming an occupational therapy assistant is to enroll in an accredited program. Once completed, you can qualify for the licensing exam. This two-year associate degree should be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) or the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).

  • Complete fieldwork: As part of your degree program, you will complete clinical experience where you'll work with patience under the supervision of an occupational therapist. The state you live in and the school you attend will determine how much experience you need, but it typically ranges from two months to one year.

  • Take the National Certification NBCOT COTA Exam: The next step is to take the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) exam. This credential qualifies you to work throughout the US. You'll take the test online, pay a fee, and provide your transcripts proving you have graduated from an accredited program.

  • Apply for your state license: You'll also need to become licensed in the state where you plan to work. Not all states have the same licensing requirements, so check with your licensing board for its Occupational Therapy Assistant license requirements. 

You may need to be certified in CPR and basic life support as an occupational therapy assistant. In some states, it could be a requirement for licensing.

Career progression

The next step up from an occupational therapy assistant is to study to become an occupational therapist. Bridge programs can help accelerate the career path to a licensed occupational therapist. 

Two options are available for an OTA to become an OT. The first option is to complete a bachelor’s degree followed by a master’s degree in occupational therapy. Your bachelor’s degree can be in any major. 

A bridge program is the second option for those with a bachelor’s degree and certification.  

OTA to OT bridge programs

An OTA to OT bridge program provides a way for those who wish to advance their careers but need to work full-time. Courses are online, and you can apply fieldwork toward program requirements. A bridge program can take two to three years to complete.

Finding the right OT bridge program

If you’re interested in an OTA to OT bridge program, review what each school offers so you’ll be eligible to take any required licensing exams. The programs typically provide remote coursework or weekend classes. Not all states offer flexible bridge programs, and the American Occupational Therapy Association keeps a current listing of schools with several search options. 

While furthering your education while working, your employer may allow you some scheduling flexibility, so it’s helpful to pass along updates from time to time.  

Get started

Explore your area's accredited OTA associate degree programs to get started as an OTA. Both the ACOTE and AOTA make it easy to find schools through their online directories. 

If you’re still considering whether becoming an OTA or pursuing another health care career is for you, explore what it’s like to work in the field by taking the Science of Exercise course offered by the University of Colorado Boulder through Coursera.

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Article sources 

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics.“Occupational Therapy Assistants and Aides: Occupational Outlook Handbook, www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapy-assistants-and-aides.htm#tab-5." Accessed June 16, 2022.

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