Occupational Therapist Assistant Jobs

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Occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) and Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTAs) specialize in the delivery and development of treatments for children and adults with injuries, illnesses, or disabilities. Occupational therapy assistants work under the direct supervision of an occupational therapist and help patients learn techniques to improve activities of daily living like brushing their teeth, dressing, grooming and hygiene, feeding themselves and many other activities.
OTA jobs are expected to increase by 43% by the year 2020—that’s a faster than average growth rate and follows the expected surge in healthcare related jobs. OTAs and COTAs both perform the same job duties but COTAs have taken and passed a national certification exam that demonstrates proficiency in the field and could mean slightly higher pay. All OTAs must take the exam and be certified to practice in the United States.

What duties do occupational therapy assistants have?

There are a variety of patients who may benefit from occupational therapy. From small children to elderly patients, conditions like mental illness, birth defects, traumatic injuries, head trauma, stroke, and more can make it difficult to live and function independently. Occupational therapists and their assistants teach patients techniques and provide them with assistive devices to manage day-to-day tasks with as much independence as possible.

Specific duties for an OTA may include:

  • Teaching patients how to use special equipment like assistive feeding devices or other tools
  • Recording patient progress and providing frequent reports to the occupational therapist
  • Teaching stretches and exercises to maximize function

OTAs also carry out a variety of administrative duties in addition to following the treatment plan created by the occupational therapist. These duties may include assisting patients and families with paperwork or insurance forms, answering phone calls and preparing treatment areas and equipment before therapy sessions.

What qualities will a great OTA have?

A great OTA will have several solid qualities. Good communication skills are essential. Because most of the OTA’s patients will have impairments, he or she must be a good listener and speak clearly so the patient can follow instructions without frustration. Sensitivity, compassion, and patience are also important. Patient progress may be slow or they may be uncooperative—the OTA must be able to handle these situations without becoming frustrated. This field may also require a significant amount of bending, stretching or lifting, so the OTA needs to be in good physical condition.

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The good and bad of OTA

Is a career as an OTA right for you? Here are a few positives and negatives about the career for you to consider before moving forward.


Pros of OTA
  • Good pay. The average salary for an OTA is $51,000. This rate is similar to those who work in parallel fields—like physical therapy assistants.
  • Rising job growth. Job opportunities for OTAs are expected to jump 43% by the year 2020. This is a faster than average increase and follows much of the expanding healthcare job market.
  • Short education. Most OTAs can begin working with just an associate degree. Requiring just two years of training, graduates can begin working soon after graduation and completion of the national examination.
  • Broad range of duties. Some healthcare assistants are limited in the scope of their duties. However OTAs are able to teach a broad range of skills to their patients including everything from balancing a checkbook to getting in and out of the car. More variety means less boredom on the job.


Cons of OTA
  • Unpredictable schedules. Because your work day revolves around the client, it will not always be possible to start at 8 and end at 5. Expect to work weekends, evenings or early mornings. If you are working for a hospital, clinic or school, your schedule will be a bit more predictable than some others.
  • Licensing and certification. Every OTA in the United States must be licensed in their state and complete the national certification exam in order to practice. Each state has their own set of rules for licensure including continuing education and other requirements. Licensure and certification also costs several hundred dollars to complete.
  • You are an assistant. Because you aren’t the boss, you don’t get to make decisions about the patient’s plan of care or educate the families extensively. You input is important to the occupational therapist but if you want to be in charge, you will need to head back to school. Starting out as an OTA is a great way to decide if being an occupational therapist is for you.

Educational requirements

To become an OTA you will need to complete high school or have a GED, then enroll in an accredited occupational therapy assistant program. You can learn more about what programs are available by visiting the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. Most states have four or five programs, but some only have one or two so make sure to ask before you enroll if the program you are considering is accredited or do some online research. Accredited programs have met national standards of quality to educate students in their field and you must graduate from an accredited program in order to take the certification exam later.
After graduation, you will need to register for your certification examination. In order to apply for work and care for patients, you must pass this test. The COTA exam costs around $600 to complete and can be taken soon after college graduation. Students will study for the exam on their own then register for the computer test online. The test is given at local testing centers across the country. A paper version is available, but costs more.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that average pay for COTAs is $51,000 per year. The highest paying jobs were with home health agencies followed by nursing facilities (long term care) and offices where specialty therapists work together. This may include audiologists, speech pathologists and physical therapists. State, local, and private schools paid the lowest.

Comparing OTA to Other Similar Fields

Occupational therapy and physical therapy are often confused, and are a great comparison. Both OTAs and PTAs assist the lead therapist, but instead of providing patients with daily activity help, he or she carries out activities just for physical wellness. Physical therapy is a the direct application of exercises, strength, and balance training that addresses only the needs of the bones, muscles and other supporting structures of the body. PTAs carry out instructions from the physical therapist and may oversee a patient’s progress in much the same way as an OTA. Pay rates are similar for both fields.

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Travel for occupational therapy assistants

Occupational therapy assistants can benefit from travel opportunities within the healthcare field. Travel careers are best for OTAs who have been working for several years and are confident working with little guidance. Of course, you will always have an occupational therapist present but a solid skill set should not be overlooked. Travel jobs offer OTAs the chance to see the country and work in some of the best medical facilities available. He or she will also enjoy higher pay for traveling plus stipends for housing, travel expenses and much more.





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By Rachel Ballard RNC, BSN

rachel ballard squareRachel Ballard

Rachel Ballard is a certified registered nurse and owner of the medical writing company iHealth Communications. iHealth teams with healthcare leaders to create written content that boosts revenue and builds relationships. Learn more about Rachel on Google+