Occupational therapy assistants and aides help patients develop, recover, and improve the skills needed for daily living and working. Occupational therapy assistants are directly involved in providing therapy to patients, while occupational therapy aides typically perform support activities. Both assistants and aides work under the direction of occupational therapists.

Duties

Occupational therapy assistants typically do the following:

  • Help patients do therapeutic activities, such as stretches and other exercises
  • Lead children who have developmental disabilities in play activities that promote coordination and socialization
  • Teach patients how to use special equipment; for example, showing a patient with Parkinson’s disease how to use devices that make eating easier
  • Record patients’ progress, report to occupational therapists, and do other administrative tasks

Occupational therapy aides typically do the following:

  • Prepare treatment areas, such as setting up therapy equipment
  • Transport patients
  • Clean treatment areas and equipment
  • Help patients with billing and insurance forms
  • Perform clerical tasks, including scheduling appointments and answering telephones

Occupational therapy assistants collaborate with occupational therapists to develop and carry out a treatment plan for each patient. Activities in plans range from teaching the proper way for patients to move from a bed into a wheelchair to the best way to stretch their muscles. For example, an occupational therapy assistant might work with injured workers to help them get back into the workforce by teaching them how to work around lost motor skills. Occupational therapy assistants also may work with people with learning disabilities to teach them skills that allow them to be more independent.

Assistants monitor activities to make sure patients are doing them correctly. They also encourage the patients. They record the patient’s progress so the therapist can change the treatment plan if the patient is not getting the desired results.

Occupational therapy aides typically prepare materials and assemble equipment used during treatment. They may assist patients with moving to and from treatment areas. After a therapy session, aides clean the treatment area and any communal equipment.

Occupational therapy aides also fill out insurance forms and other paperwork and are responsible for a range of clerical tasks, such as scheduling appointments, answering the telephone, and monitoring inventory levels.

Work Environment

Occupational therapy assistants held about 30,300 jobs in 2012. Occupational therapy aides held about 8,400 jobs in 2012. Occupational therapy assistants and aides work primarily in occupational therapists’ offices, hospitals, and nursing care facilities.

The industries that employed the most occupational therapy assistants in 2012 were as follows:

Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists,
and audiologists
35%
Nursing and residential care facilities 22
Hospitals; state, local, and private 21
Educational services; state, local, and private 6
Home health care services 4

The industries that employed the most occupational therapy aides in 2012 were as follows: 

Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists,
and audiologists
33%
Hospitals; state, local, and private 32
Nursing and residential care facilities 13
Social assistance 5
Educational services; state, local, and private 4

Occupational therapy assistants and aides spend much of their time on their feet setting up equipment and, in the case of assistants, working with patients. Constant kneeling and stooping are part of the job, as is the need to sometimes lift patients.

Work Schedules

Most occupational therapy assistants and aides work full time. Occupational therapy assistants and aides may work during evenings or on weekends to accommodate patients' schedules.

Education and Training

Occupational therapy assistants need an associate’s degree from an accredited occupational therapy assistant program. They also must be licensed in most states. Occupational therapy aides typically have a high school diploma or equivalent.

Education and Training

People interested in becoming an occupational therapy assistant should take high school courses in biology and health. They can also increase their chances of getting into a community college or technical school program by doing volunteer work in a healthcare setting, such as a nursing care facility, an occupational therapist's office, or a physical therapist's office.

Occupational therapy assistants typically need an associate’s degree from an accredited program. Occupational therapy assistant programs are commonly found in community colleges and technical schools. In March 2013, there were 162 occupational therapy assistant programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education, a branch of the American Occupational Therapy Association.

These programs generally require 2 years of full-time study. They include classroom instruction in subjects such as psychology, biology, and pediatric health. Occupational therapy assistants also must complete at least 16 weeks of fieldwork as part of their education to gain hands-on work experience.

Occupational therapy aides typically have a high school diploma or equivalent. They are trained on the job under the supervision of more experienced assistants or aides. Training can last from several weeks to a few months and covers a number of topics, including set up of therapy equipment and infection control procedures, among others. Prior work experience in healthcare as well as CPR and Basic Life Support (BLS) certifications may be helpful in getting a job.

Important Qualities

Compassion. Occupational therapy assistants and aides frequently work with patients who struggle with many of life’s basic activities. As a result, they should be compassionate and caring and have the ability to encourage others.

Detail oriented. Occupational therapy assistants and aides must be able to quickly and accurately follow the instructions, both written and spoken, of an occupational therapist. 

Flexibility. Assistants must be flexible when treating patients. Because not every type of therapy will work for each patient, assistants may need to be creative when working with occupational therapists to determine the best type of therapy to use for achieving a patient’s goals.

Interpersonal skills. Occupational therapy assistants and aides spend much of their time interacting with patients. They should be friendly and courteous, and they should be able to communicate with patients to the extent of their ability and training.

Physical strength. Assistants and aides need to have a moderate degree of strength because of the physical exertion required to assist patients. Constant kneeling, stooping, and standing for long periods also are part of the job.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Most states require occupational therapy assistants to be licensed or registered. Licensure typically requires the completion of an accredited occupational therapy assistant education program, completion of all fieldwork requirements, and passing the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam. Some states have additional requirements.

Occupational therapy assistants must pass the NBCOT exam to use the title ""Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant"" (COTA). They must also take continuing education classes to maintain certification.

Occupational therapy aides are not regulated.

Advancement

Some occupational therapy assistants and aides advance by gaining additional education to become occupational therapists. A small number of occupational therapist ""bridge"" education programs are designed for qualifying occupational therapy assistants to advance to therapists.

Pay

The median annual wage for occupational therapy assistants was $53,240 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $32,970, and the top 10 percent earned more than $73,120.

The median annual wage for occupational therapy aides was $26,850 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $18,030, and the top 10 percent earned more than $47,880.

In May 2012, the median annual wages for occupational therapy assistants in the top five industries in which they worked were as follows:

Home health care services $57,840
Nursing and residential care facilities 57,260
Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists,
and audiologists
55,070
Hospitals; state, local, and private 49,460
Educational services; state, local, and private 43,330

In May 2012, the median annual wages for occupational therapy aides in the top five industries in which they worked were as follows: 

Hospitals; state, local, and private $29,370
Nursing and residential care facilities 28,380
Educational services; state, local, and private 27,970
Social assistance 25,890
Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists,
and audiologists
22,580

Most occupational therapy assistants and aides work full time. Occupational therapy assistants and aides may work during evenings or on weekends to accommodate patients' schedules.

Job Outlook

Employment of occupational therapy assistants is projected to grow 43 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Employment of occupational therapy aides is projected to increase 36 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. However, because it is a small occupation, the fast growth will result in only about 3,000 new jobs over the 10-year period.

Demand for occupational therapy is expected to rise significantly over the coming decade in response to the health needs of the aging baby-boom generation and a growing elderly population. Older adults are more prone than younger people to conditions and ailments such as arthritis and stroke. These conditions can affect the ability to perform a variety of everyday activities. Occupational therapy assistants and aides will be needed to help occupational therapists in caring for these people. Occupational therapy will also continue to be used for treating children and young adults with developmental disabilities like autism.

Demand for occupational therapy assistants is also expected to stem from healthcare providers employing more assistants to reduce the cost of occupational therapy services. After the therapist has evaluated a patient and designed a treatment plan, the occupational therapy assistant can provide many aspects of the treatment that the therapist prescribed.

Demand for occupational therapy services is related to the ability of patients to pay, either directly or through health insurance. The number of individuals who have access to occupational therapy services may increase because of federal health insurance reform. Both rehabilitation and habilitation services are listed among the essential health benefits that insurers will need to cover once reforms are implemented. Occupational therapy assistants and aides will be needed to help therapists treat additional patients and to ensure that treatment facility operations run smoothly.

Job Prospects

Occupational therapy assistants and aides with experience working in an occupational therapy office or other healthcare setting should have the best job opportunities. In addition to overall employment growth, job openings will also result from the need to replace occupational therapy assistants and aides who leave the occupation.

For More Information

For more information about occupational therapy assistants or aides, visit

American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc.

For more information about certification for occupational therapy assistants, visit

National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.