What do you want to become?
Occupational Therapy Assistant
Alternate Career Titles: Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant, OTA, COTA
Career Overview: Helps patients develop, recover, improve and maintain the skills needed for daily living and working
Career Salary Range: $39,160 to $80,090
Estimated Years of Schooling Required: 2
Required Minimum Degree/License: Associate’s Degree and Certification
Become a Occupational Therapy Assistant
An Occupational Therapy Assistant is a healthcare professional who provides patients with therapies intended to help them perform all essential personal and professional activities. For example, Occupational Therapy Assistants (OTA), who are supervised by an Occupational Therapist, will teach patients proper ways to move about, to stretch their muscles to improve function and to monitor activities for correctness in their completion.
They also report patient progress and feedback back to the Occupational Therapist, and often work directly with patients with learning disabilities to teach them skills increasing the possibilities of future independence. Occupational therapy can also be used to treat children and young adults with developmental disabilities, including autism.
“A career as a Certified OTA is rewarding to see what influence you had on improving an individual’s overall life,” Patricia Allen, COTA, a longtime Occupational Therapy Assistant practicing in South Carolina, said.
Daily Healthcare Career Info! Follow Us.
Stay connected to the latest Healthcare Career Advice easily through Facebook.
Education & Training
To become an Occupational Therapy Assistant, professionals must obtain an Associate’s Degree accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education. Often, these programs can be found in community colleges and within technical schools, and are typically 2 years of full-time study in length.
“The curriculum was not that difficult, just a lot of studying. It took 2 years to complete,” Allen said. “The challenging part for me was the traveling, because there were no local Certified OTA programs close to where I live.”
To fully finish their studies, Occupational Therapy Assistants must complete at least 16 weeks of fieldwork to gain real-world work experience, and often need additional certifications in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and basic life support (BLS). Also, because each state separately regulates the practice of Occupational Therapy Assistants, passing the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy is often a prerequisite to licensure.
Following successful completion of an approved course of study, most states require graduates to take and pass the COTA exam. This exam is administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy Assistant (NBCOTA). The OTA student is now considered a “Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant”, or “COTA.” A few states have additional requirements.
Allen confirmed that she was required to take the NBCOTA.
The American Occupational Therapy Association offers specialty certifications for those OTAs who are interesting in increasing their knowledge of specialized areas of practice such as feeding, swallowing, eating and in assisting patients with poor vision.
“If a Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant wanted to advance their career to become a fully qualified (registered) Occupational Therapist (OTR) they would need additional schooling at the masters or doctoral level. Only OTRs are able to evaluate and prescribe treatment for clients,” Allen said. “As a Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant, you can only implement the treatment plan, however you can supervise rehab techs within the department.”
Experience & Skills
To be successful as an OTA, professionals must be physically capable of helping patients complete therapeutic activities, such as stretches. Furthermore, Occupational Therapy Assistants should be able to educate others, and should possess attention to detail and the ability to note and record progress in the form of data.
“It is good to have some experience with healthcare-related nursing tasks, however it is not required,” added Allen. “COTAs may also be required to complete a certain amount of observation hours to enter the COTA program.”
“Occupational Therapy Assistants should have a kind, caring and empathic personality,” stressed Allen.
Emotionally, this profession requires empathy and patience. Occupational Therapy Assistants must be able to adapt to challenges, while finding new therapy methods which will help a patient achieve their physical goals. They must also be able to effectively communicate and interact with patients, without getting frustrated and while clearly identifying what they are doing and hoping to achieve. Lastly, being detail-oriented is an important characteristic in this field, as one minor alteration can become the difference between and effective and ineffective treatment.
“A Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant’s lifestyle can be fast-paced and energetic,” Allen explained.
Occupational Therapy Assistants can expect to spend much of their time on their feet when providing therapies to patients or helping to set up equipment. This is a career that involves physical exertion such as kneeling, stooping and standing. These professionals may be expected to work full-time and during atypical hours, including evenings and weekends to accommodate their patients or employing facilities.
Most frequently employed by the offices of Occupational, Speech or Physical Therapists, or by Audiologists, Occupational Therapy Assistants also find employment at nursing care facilities, state, local and private hospitals, home healthcare and educational services. As the “baby boomer” generation continues to age, conditions such as arthritis and stroke become more prevalent and a need for Occupational Therapy Assistants increases. Furthermore, this profession is projected to grow 29 percent from 2016 to 2026 (BLS).
While this growth is good news for the industry, because the field is relatively small, the fast growth will still only result in about 1,800 new positions over the course of the decade. This may indicate higher pay increases in the future as demand expands for the limited providers! Currently there are about 39,300 employed Occupational Therapy Assistants in the U.S. (BLS).
“The earning potential for Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant’s is good,” Allen said. “Also, there are opportunities for traveling Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant’s and they can earn more money.”
While the median annual wage for Occupational Therapy Assistants was $59,010 in May 2016, the lowest 10 percent earned less than $39,160 and the highest 10 percent earned more than $80,090. The top-paying states include Texas, Arkansas, New Jersey, Maryland and California (BLS).
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
“There are numerous groups that support the Occupational Therapy discipline such as American Occupational Therapy Association, state associations and several on social media as well,” advised Allen.
The American Occupational Therapy Association represents the interests and concerns of occupational therapy practitioners and students of occupational therapy, while working to improve the quality of occupational therapy services overall. Representing approximately 213,000 occupational therapy practitioners and students in the U.S., AOTA’s work is dedicated to advancing the quality, availability, use, and support of occupational therapy through standard-setting, advocacy, education and research on behalf of its members and the public.
- Speak with a COTA about the pros and cons of the career
- Learn more about college COTA programs
- Apply to a COTA program
All statistics are provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Meet the professional: Patricia Allen
Practice: Skilled nursing facility
Location: Lexington, SC
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“I would suggest observing a Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant in several different settings to get a better understanding of what the discipline entails.”
What’s the number one mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“The biggest mistake is not fully understanding what the requirements are of the career.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Do I have to bathe people? Do I have to take people to the bathroom?”
Why did you choose to become a Certified Occupational Therapist Assistant?
“I wanted to make a difference in the lives of people and see the progress they make.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would that be?
- Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education