Posted on 03/03/2020

What is the difference between a career in physiotherapy and occupational therapy?

What is the difference between a career in physiotherapy and occupational therapy?

What’s the difference between physiotherapy and occupational therapy, and would you be suited to a career in either of them?

National Careers Week takes place from the 2nd to the 7th of March this year with the aim of providing people with guidance to help them choose the right career path.

To support National Careers Week, we’ve asked our fantastic team of Occupational Therapists a few questions to help more people understand what a job in occupational therapy includes and show some key differences to related professions, such as physiotherapy. By shedding some light on the world of occupational therapy, we hope to help those considering it as a career to decide whether it is right for them and inform others about the profession!

What is an Occupational Therapist?

Occupational Therapists (OTs) work with people who are finding everyday tasks or important activities difficult, to provide them with easier solutions. OTs can work in a range of settings with people of any age; their clients may be living with a mental or physical health condition, recovering from an injury or perhaps just getting older. They will consider each person’s physical and psychological needs before deciding how their skills, environment or activity can be adapted to make things easier for each individual. By helping people to continue with activities that are important to them, an OT seeks to enable individuals to be as independent as possible and improve their quality of life.

What is the fundamental difference between an Occupational Therapist and a Physiotherapist? Are there any similarities/links?

Janet: I was once told by a colleague when I was first looking into being an OT that Physiotherapists help a person get from A to B. Then Occupational Therapists are needed once a person gets to B, so whether that is for a chair transfer, a toilet transfer etc, that is when we are needed to carry out an assessment to determine what the actual difficulty is and how we can enable a person to overcome that difficulty. There are definitely some similarities and links between the two and these two occupations can work so well together to achieve a person’s desired outcomes.

Heather: Both are allied health professions. Similarities include knowledge and understanding of the muscular skeletal system and the impact this has on function. However, Physiotherapy is a more medical model, where outcome-based measurements are used to determine the success of treatment. Physiotherapy concentrates on range of movement, strength and endurance to maintain and promote mobility or function. Occupational therapy, on the other hand, focuses on the link between malfunction of component parts and the effect that has on the whole person. Occupational Therapists have a greater understanding on the link between mind, body and soul. For example, they understand that although a dysfunction of one part of the body may impact a person’s ability to complete every day activities, it may also impact a person’s role, e.g. their ability to be a wife, mother, employed person etc. By treating the whole person, OT’s seek to improve quality of life, and enable people to engage in those meaningful activities (occupations) which are important to them.

David: A key difference is that occupations – meaningful activities – are the focus of intervention for Occupational Therapists, whereas Physiotherapists use ‘physical’ methods of treatment, such as exercises, heat, and movement. Occupational Therapists would look to adapt the person’s environment or skills or modify the activity. Similarities are that we are both registered health professions, with degree entry, with a focus on development and rehabilitation, and enabling people to be as active as they wish.

Deb: OT’s are dual trained – mental and physical health for adults and children alike. OT’s look at the occupational performance of a person, their environment and the things they want and need to do. To optimise this performance, an OT analyses activities (washing, dressing, standing, thinking, eating, toileting) and offers creative solutions, including the adaptation of social and physical environments. So, occupation is the fundamental difference!

In your opinion, are these professions suited to different types of people? Do they attract different types of people?

Heather: Physiotherapy is more prescriptive, more medical, whereas occupational therapy has a narrative to it – what a person thinks and feels are just as important as the medical presentation during the assessment process. OT treatment often involves utilising meaningful activities rather than exercise. Why people choose what they choose possibly has something to do with what they have experienced themselves. Occupational therapy is often difficult to explain and not well understood amongst the public and medical professions.

Janet: When I was studying occupational therapy, I noticed that many of my fellow OT students were an older crowd, including me! I suppose it was also leaning towards being female dominated, which I also found when I worked in social services. At one point there were sixteen women in my team and one man. The physiotherapy crowd at uni tended to be younger and the course also tended to attract male students. I’m not sure what that says! Sometimes having a bit of life experience behind you can be an advantage, regardless of which profession you choose.

David: People with many different personalities and interests will find their niche in these professions; this could be working in hospitals or in people’s homes, with adults or children, in physical or mental health. One thing they both have in common is that they are professions which involve problem-solving, whilst also educating and motivating patients and service users. You need to care about people and enjoy the challenges of the work, finding solutions whenever possible.

Deb: Very different jobs, sporty types tend to be attracted to physiotherapy and OTs need to be creative and adaptable due to the dual training.

What is it about occupational therapy that interests you?

Heather: The building of meaningful and therapeutic relationships. I also love problem solving – the investigation and analysis of several pieces of information, combined with finding the solution, has the potential to make huge, positive changes to people’s lives.

Janet: I was working as an Occupational Therapy Assistant, as well as a social work assistant, and the council I worked for allowed to choose a career pathway . There was no question for me, I was definitely more interested in occupational therapy. There was more to get involved with in a person’s life and I liked the practical aspect of being able to order equipment and then visit to set it up to their needs. I also liked meeting with reps from so many different companies and learning about all the products on the market (this is vast and products are being developed every day!). I like being able to try out equipment. We have to have regular moving and handling training, and practicing techniques with colleagues is such a great learning environment. When you are in a great team, it is so inclusive and empowering. It is like nothing else I have ever known.

David: I love working with people, to support them to find solutions to the difficulties they encounter in everyday activities. Looking at their situations holistically and working in collaboration with them and their support.

Deb: The spectrum of the role and the capacity for me as a professional to have an impact at personal and population levels, is what I love about occupational therapy.

Did you ever consider physiotherapy as a career? Why/why not?

Heather: No. I chose to become an OT following the rehabilitation of my mother after a stroke. I found the Physiotherapists to be very direct and to the point, very prescriptive. The OT’s spent time with my mum; they retaught her how to look after herself, how to relearn information she had lost, how to compensate for her disability etc The OT’s made a huge impact on her mental wellbeing which, in turn, allowed her to not only deal with the fact that she will never be the same again but also taught her how to problem solve and be independent despite her disability.

Janet: No, I never considered physiotherapy. It wasn’t really an option for me anyway – I was seconded to the OT degree as I was working for a social services department, so it was that or social work. But even when we had joint lectures with our physiotherapy colleagues at uni, I never felt like I was on the wrong degree or career path. I think because there are so many areas that OTs can work in, whether physical or mental health, traditional or non-traditional careers, vocational training etc I just knew I was better suited to occupational therapy.

David: No. At the time I was choosing my career path, I was contemplating occupational therapy or mental health nursing, but decided on occupational therapy as I liked the variety of work areas – not specialising too soon – as well as the focus on activities.

Deb: No, I’m an Occupational Therapist, physiotherapy is too narrow for me.

How did you get into occupational therapy e.g. through uni, becoming an OTA etc?

Heather: I was a mature student when I decided on a career change. I became a carer whilst doing an access course, then I became an Occupational Therapy Assistant whilst completing a part time degree.

Janet: I had joined a local authority as a temp working as a support worker with children and families almost as soon as I had completed my first degree in social policy. I was then made permanent and I did that for two years. We had a social worker who used to visit our office as we supported a service user who also had a physical disability. He was from a team called Physical and Sensory Disabilities and I used to ask him all about his job and what it involved. When a vacancy became available for a Community Care Worker (which was a mix of OTA and social work assistant), he remembered me constantly asking him about his team! He printed out an application form for me and brought it down to my office, so I applied for the role…and got it. Almost immediately, I asked to go onto the OT degree course and I was accepted. It also helped that I had not long completed my social policy degree, meaning I didn’t have to do an access course or any further study prior to starting. For the next four and half years I went to uni two days a week whilst holding both OT and social work cases three days a week and completing four practice placements somewhere in between.

David: My first degree was in psychology. After doing some voluntary work with people with learning disabilities, I decided I wanted to work in a supportive role, which lead to a support worker job working with people who had dementia. These were rewarding roles. I then started looking into higher education so that I could understand better how to provide support, and I decided to apply for a postgraduate diploma in occupational therapy, which was an accelerated two-year course.

Deb: Hard work and determination! Access course at college, Uni.

In your opinion, when is the best time to start a career in occupational therapy?

Whilst national careers week primarily focuses on young people who are just starting out in the world of work, they aren’t the only ones who might be looking for a new job. Many people change professions later in life and as our OTs explain, starting a career in occupational therapy is still an option when you’re older.

Heather: I chose to do it later in life. I believe my life experience helped me to thrive, however I know OT’s whom have followed this career path from school and have equally succeeded.

Janet: There’s no time like the present! Lots of occupational therapy services are restructuring, often wanting their OTs to help shape and transform their services for the benefit of their employees and ultimately the end user/their families who will receive those services. Research is key so the best thing would be to visit as many OT services as possible and spend time understanding more about the people who will use those services. If there is one thing I have learned the most, it’s about listening. You have to be a really good, active listener.

David: Anytime! Many Occupational Therapists start out as mature students or as a career change. You can use your past employment and study experiences to inform your work as an Occupational Therapist.

Deb: Today – there are benefits of registering when you’re older and have more life experience, but there are also benefits in registering as a younger person too. I was late 40s when I registered.

Is there a demand for Occupational Therapists?

Heather: Yes, due to the unique skill set of OT’s they are used in many different settings and there are simply not enough to go around.

Janet: There is a huge demand for OTs. Actually, in my uni days I learned that the physiotherapy course tended to be oversubscribed and there were fewer jobs whereas I’ve always known that it’s the opposite for occupational therapy. There is so much work out there and also overseas, including New Zealand, Australia and the United Arab Emirates. One of my uni colleagues completed one of her practice placements in a rehab hospital in Spain!

David: Definitely, and more Occupational Therapists are working in non-traditional roles, even starting their own businesses.

Deb: Yes, and it will be greater as it’s realised the benefits that can be gained in both financial and personal terms to populations.

What opportunities do Occupational Therapists have to develop in their career?

Heather: OT’s have a unique skill set which enable us to work in a wide range of settings. There is a career path for working in a health or social care setting, but the skills also qualify OT’s to progress in roles outside of the profession, such as case management.

Janet: Oh my goodness, the possibilities are endless. In social care you can become a senior OT then line manager, then team manager. Both the clinical lead and service manager in West Sussex council are OTs. The same is true for health, you can end up being a professional or clinical lead, head of service etc. Everything you learn in each and every role will link to something else so that the ladder you climb to develop your career is filled with meaningful experiences and challenges. You will get things wrong but you will learn so much. There are so many opportunities in mental health as well, whether working in a secure unit or in a community team. They also have OTs working in the prison service.

David: Many opportunities through rotational posts, training courses, and self-study. The NHS and social services have a career development structure and you can do a masters or doctorate in occupational therapy. The Royal College of Occupational Therapists now has a career development framework which is really helpful.

Deb: As part of our registration and supervision process we are always developing our careers. It’s a requirement. We should be making efforts to keep abreast of policy, knowledge, research – continuously. #OTalk on Twitter is my favourite Tuesday way of continuing my professional development.

What is it like to have a career in occupational therapy at NRS Healthcare?

Our clinical services team started out in 2010 with just one Occupational Therapist based at our head office. The team has been flourishing ever since and we now have over 55 members of staff in the team.

Heather: Amazing! No 2 days are the same. – it’s very rewarding and versatile. Although it is a non-traditional role, there is a greater opportunity to utilise a wider range of core occupational therapy skills. There are also opportunities to develop specialist skills with equipment, whilst still engaging in regular patient assessments. I am passionate about our universal services and being able use my knowledge and skills to create cost and efficiency savings whilst promoting quality for the service and its users is the best feeling.

Janet: Being an NRS OT is such a varied role. It hasn’t been at all easy. It is completely different from where I have come from and I must admit the biggest challenge has been being the only clinician in both contracts. I would never want to put someone off trying a new role and I have learned things and met people that I never would have if I had not come to NRS. I would never regret coming to NRS. I have changed so much personally and professionally. I have had to get involved with so many things that I never would have had the opportunity for. You must have good interpersonal skills. It’s funny because the OT world can be so female dominated and then being based in the warehouse, well I’m the only woman here and we have such a laugh!

David: Rewarding and challenging! Working at NRS Healthcare provides a varied role, with the opportunity to develop new services and initiatives that you don’t normally get at the band 6 level. You specialise in community equipment and learn a lot continually in this company. I have also had the opportunity to work together with colleagues from many different teams such as marketing, business development and product design. And, of course, the client work is very varied too with the opportunity to make the right equipment recommendations for people’s needs.

Deb: I’m keen! Innovation and leadership are key to the changes needed to tackle the social determinants of health – and NRS are open to both those things.

Thank you to Deb, Heather, Janet and David who were kind enough to share their views with us and tell us more about occupational therapy. We currently have a number of available positions for Occupational Therapists at NRS Healthcare at a number of our service centres across the country:

• Portsmouth/Southampton
• Blackburn Darwin
• Hereford
• West Sussex

If you are from any of the above areas and wish to apply to one of our occupational therapy posts, please contact our clinical services team at [email protected]. We can’t wait to see what the future has in store for all our OTs and the rest of the clinical team!

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