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How to Compare Physical, Occupational & Speech Therapist Occupations

by Beth Greenwood

Although they all work in the health field, and there is some overlap between physical and occupational therapy, physical therapists, or PTs, occupational therapists, or OTs, and speech therapists -- more properly called speech-language pathologists, or SLPs -- are different occupations. Each occupies a specific niche in the health care industry. They can best be compared by examining requirements for education, licensing and certification, as well as job duties, outlook and salaries.

Hitting the Books

Graduate or postgraduate education is required for all PTs, OTs and SLPs. OTs and SLPs must have a master’s degree, but a PT must have a doctorate. Doctoral programs are also available for OTs, and some OTs do choose a doctorate. All institutions that offer these degrees must be accredited by the relevant accrediting body, which is different for each profession. Some programs offer dual degrees, in which a student can obtain both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree within five years. Supervised clinical experience is a necessary component of all programs, and some may have required prerequisites.

Licensing and Certification

In addition to basic education, licensing may be required for these occupations. Each state regulates the health professions, and regulations may differ from one state to another. PTs must be licensed in all states, and some states also require that the PT complete continuing education to maintain licensure. OTs must be licensed in all states. Most states require that SLPs be licensed. Depending on the state, certification may be optional or required for licensure in these three professions. PTs can be certified in different specialties, such as sports medicine or pediatrics. OTs receive a general certification from the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapists. SLPs receive the Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Divergence and Convergence

PTs use therapy to help people regain or retain mobility, increase strength and manage pain. A PT will assess a patient’s movement, develop a treatment plan and use therapeutic interventions such as exercise, stretching or massage to help patients meet their goals. OTs use everyday living activities as therapy. An OT might teach a patient with arthritis an alternate way of dressing or use play therapy to help a disabled child. SLPs work with patients who have swallowing or communication disorders. An SLP might teach a patient how to make sounds, evaluate the extent of a communication problem or teach an alternative method such as sign language. PTs and OTs use some of the same techniques, and any of the three might work with certain kinds of patients, such as an elderly stroke victim or a disabled child.

Looking to the Future

The job outlook for all of these occupations is good, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. An aging patient population, chronic diseases and technological advances that help disabled children and injured adults survive longer are expected to drive demand. PTs are expected to be most in demand, with 39 percent job growth between 2010 and 2020 -- more than twice as fast as the average for all occupations. The average annual salary for PTs in 2012 was $81,110, according to the BLS. OTs, who earned an average of $76,400, should see 33 percent job growth. SLPs can expect a 23 percent increase in jobs, still faster than average although less than the other two occupations. SLPs earned $72,730 in 2012, the BLS reports.

About the Author

Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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