3 career paths in occupational therapy

Occupational therapy provides career paths to people of different education levels.

The need to help patients return to normal lives after illness or injury is one of the fastest growing fields among allied health careers.

Occupational therapy includes a variety of jobs working with patients ranging from children to the elderly. The job description can range from helping children at school or setting up a work space to help an employee.

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The demand for occupational therapists, occupational therapist assistants and occupational therapist aides are among the jobs the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects to grow by more than 29% through 2020.

And the three therapy careers are among the fastest growing jobs with their entry education requirements — master’s degree, associate’s degree and high school diploma, according to the BLS.

Occupational therapy workers are similar to physical therapy workers but there is a difference. Simply put, physical therapy attends to movement and physical activity.

Occupational therapists have a “holistic perspective” that changes the patient’s environment to fit the person and may extend to counseling family members or care givers, according to the website for the American Occupational Therapy Association, aota.org.

For someone looking to become an occupational therapy practitioner, you can start after high school and work up to a master’s with an occupational therapy online degree.

Here’s a look at the three types of occupational therapy careers:

Occupational Therapist

These workers develop a therapy treatment plan, often directing assistants and aides, and often starting with observation and evaluation. It can include exercises, activities and educating the patient’s family or prescribing special equipment.

The tasks can include helping someone with memory problems use a computer to being part of a therapy team at a nursing home or hospital.

Becoming an occupational therapist requires a master’s degree in physical therapy that builds on undergraduate work in biology and physiology. You need a master’s degree to take a certification examination, the therapy association website said.

Certification from the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, along with graduation from an accredited program, is necessary to obtain a license that is required in all states, the BLS said.

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The job outlook is good for occupational therapists with the profession expected to grow at 33%, among the six fastest growing fields requiring a master’s degree tracked by the BLS.

The median salary is $72,000. Home health care services and nursing homes pay more.

Occupational Therapist Assistant

Therapist assistants work under the direction of a therapist and help devise and carry out a therapy plan. The assistants often work directly with the patient to carry out the plan through exercises, showing a patient how to use equipment, and possibly working with children in activities to improve coordination.

The job can have some physical demands assisting patients, the BLS said, and compassion is a top quality in therapists.

Becoming an occupational therapist assistant requires an associate’s degree that typically takes two years of study and clinical work, the BLS said. To receive a license that most states require, you’ll need to graduate from a program accredited by the national certification board and pass an examination. The BLS said more than 300 programs have accreditation.

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Job growth for therapist assistants is expected to hit 44%, one of the seven fastest growing careers you can enter with an associate’s degree, according to the BLS.

The median salary is $51,000, with jobs at nursing homes or in therapists’ offices paying more, the BLS said.

Occupational Therapist Aide

The therapist aide’s job is to help the assistant and therapist by preparing treatment equipment, filling out insurance forms and paperwork and handling scheduling.

A therapist aide can enter the field at this level with a high school diploma and most training is on-the-job. Training can last weeks or months and include classroom and working with a therapist or assistant, the BLS said.

The occupational therapy association does not accredit programs for therapist aides.

Aides can start in the field and earn experience before moving into an associate’s degree program.

Job growth is expected to be 33% and the BLS expects demand for occupational therapy to increase. New jobs for therapist aides are among the 16 fastest growing with a high school diploma, the BLS said.

The median salary for an occupational therapist aide is $27,000 and nearly $30,000 at nursing care facilities.