Occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) help injured, disabled or ill patients recover and develop the necessary skills of daily life through therapeutic applications of everyday activities. They often work with special needs groups, such as patients with Alzheimer's disease or children with developmental difficulties. These assistants may introduce patients to specialized health technology designed for a specific medical condition, such as devices for individuals with Parkinson's disease that can make it easier to eat. OTAs also may compose reports on patients' progress and perform basic administrative tasks. For more information, see our occupational therapist assistants career page.
Occupational Therapy Assisting Program Information
Occupational therapy assisting programs are typically offered at community colleges, technical schools and career academies. While traditional programs take place on campus, students in some parts of the country may turn to hybrid programs that split time between campus-based and virtual learning environments. Both program models usually require students to participate in fieldwork courses and attend laboratory instruction in person, but classes that teach academic principles can be conducted in the classroom or online. Studies could include psychology, biology and children's health.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most states require occupational therapy assistants to be licensed (bls.gov/ooh, 2012). State licensing programs typically only issue licenses to graduates of programs that have been recognized by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE).
Once students graduate from an occupational therapy assisting program, they can seek certification from the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). Although most employers don't make certification a necessity among job candidates, applicants who can use the official title Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA) may be preferable to those who have not passed the certification exam. It's important for students to look into the requirements for certification and licensing in the region where they're seeking employment, because states have different sets of rules and regulations.
Occupational Therapy Assisting Program Types
Typically, occupational therapy assisting schools feature associate degrees. Here are two different types of degrees commonly offered through occupational therapy assisting programs.
Associate of Science (A.S.):
- A.S. programs can usually be completed in about 24 months of full-time study.
- May require between 85 and 110 credit hours, depending on the institution.
- Programs could be designed to maximize a student's ability to continue education in a bachelor's degree program.
Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S):
- Some A.A.S. programs can potentially be completed in less than two years, depending on a student's course load.
- A.A.S. programs may have as much coursework as for the A.S. track, but some could require as little as 70-80 credit hours of combined academic, laboratory and fieldwork classes.
- Programs may be designed for students interested in a more direct route to the workforce, with less emphasis on transfer credits in general education.
Continuing education may be necessary after graduation to maintain credentials or as part of state licensing requirements.
Occupational Therapy Assisting Course Descriptions
Occupational therapy assisting schools may vary in overall degree plan and the specific presentation of course material, but there are some class subjects that most programs share. Here's a short list of courses that students can expect to see on their schedule:
- Anatomy and Physiology: Examines the major systems of the human body and their functions, including membranes, cells, tissues and regulatory processes
- Medical Terminology: Introduces specific vocabulary used in the medical profession, including analysis and translation of word parts like prefixes, suffixes and roots from Greek or Latin
- Social Sciences: May include the psychology of motivation, human developmental psychology, behavioral psychology, sociology, individual and group psychology, or other social science fundamentals
- Introduction to Occupational Therapy: Focuses on the history, scope of practice and standards of occupational therapy professions while discussing ethics and professionalism in the healthcare industry
- Therapeutic Technology: Addresses various therapeutic options available in an occupational therapy context and aims to teach students how to select appropriate equipment or devices for a given situation
Related Career Options
A background in occupational therapy assisting could also be a springboard for other healthcare career paths. Occupational therapists need to earn master's degrees, but some other healthcare career paths may be more accessible. With the additional schooling and certifications required, graduates from occupational therapy programs may be able to pursue positions like these:
- Physical Therapy Assistants: PTAs use techniques such as massage and stretching to treat patients recovering from illness, injury or surgery. They may also talk with patients and family members about their role in treatment.
- Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurses: LPNs and LVNs monitor patient health and administer basic nursing care. They typically keep health records and prepare patient status reports for registered nurses and doctors.
- Registered Nurses: RNs may work with physicians to devise treatment plans for patients based on symptoms and medical history. They oversee patient care and may also operate clinical diagnostic equipment to perform tests and analyze results. Nurses need to complete formal training programs and obtain professional licenses.
Links to Sources and Associations
More information about occupational therapy assisting can be found on the following websites: