Learn About Being an Occupational Therapy Assistant

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published December 10, 2019

What does an occupational therapy assistant do?

Occupational therapy assistants, or OTAs, are health care professionals who assist occupational therapists with the rehabilitation and care of patients. These patients can include adults and children with physical issues and injuries and also those with mental and emotional conditions. An occupational therapy assistant aims to help their clients to carry out their daily lives comfortably and capably. Occupational therapies vary from teaching someone with a broken leg how to get around the house to helping someone to leave their house and go shopping.

An occupational therapy assistant may have the following duties:

  • Moving and repositioning bedridden patients

  • Explaining and demonstrating exercises 

  • Preparing reports and patient notes

  • Abiding by ethical and confidentiality regulations

Average salary

Occupational therapy assistants are typically paid more in the private sector and large cities. They may receive a stipend to cover travel expenses if this is part of the role. Salaries will vary according to qualifications, experience and size of the employer. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the salary link.

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $29.60 per hour

  • Some salaries range from $11.45 to $54.95 per hour.

Occupational therapy assistant requirements

An occupational therapy assistant works in the field of health care and will need to have an education and earn qualifications in this field to gain employment.

Education

If you wish to become an occupational therapy assistant, you will need to gain your high school diploma or GED equivalent before enrolling in an accredited OTA associate degree program. Schools prefer that students have some work experience in the field before applying to the program, which gives them an understanding of the job and helps them to do well in their program coursework.

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) is the regulating body for the degree programs and the licensure for OTAs and OTs. The majority of OTA programs are two years in duration and consist of written coursework, theory and practical classes. The first year of the program is spent in the classroom learning the underscoring theories of occupational therapy. The subjects of the classes vary by the particular school. Core modules are human biology, psychology, pediatrics, gerontology, kinesiology, medical terminology, neuroscience concepts and occupational rehabilitation therapy.

Training

The second year of an OTA program encompasses practical work and training supervised by a licensed occupational therapist. Clinical hours can be in an outpatient setting, in acute care, a rehabilitation center or in-home health care. Depending on the state you are in, this training will be for a minimum of eight weeks in duration.

Occupational therapy assistants can work in a variety of settings and with a range of different patients. In any new job that you begin as an OTA, there will typically be an induction period to help you to become familiar with your new clients and the type of injuries and issues that are common in your new role. 

The onboarding process could involve shadowing an experienced OTA or OT who can show you the duties of the role. There may be workshops and classes that outline the health and safety aspects of your new employer, how to manage patient case notes, any relevant procedures you need to follow, the appointment system and how to report equipment breakages or maintenance requirements.

Certification

Gaining certifications indicates to future employers that you are a professional who is serious about your career and that you have the level of knowledge and technical abilities necessary for the role. These are two frequently required certifications in this career:

Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA)

This certification is accredited by The National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) and is the most important certification for this profession. It is a requisite to obtain mandatory state licensure. You should review your state requirements, as some accept the NBCOT examination alone to gain licensure and others have a separate license examination. Several states mandate that OTAs attend continuing education courses to maintain their certified status. Exams are held at multiple locations countrywide and throughout the year, and consist of four main areas of theory: factors that influence the occupational therapy process, formulation of therapy plans, selection of interventions and managing therapy services to promote quality. There are 170 multiple choice questions and three clinical simulation tests to answer in four hours.

Basic Life Support (BLS) certification

Employers often prefer that you hold the BLS certification, especially if you are employed in a hospital. This certification is offered by the American Heart Association at teaching centers nationwide and is valid for two years. It teaches basic resuscitation techniques. The exam consists of 10 multiple-choice questions.

Skills

To become a successful occupational therapy assistant, you will need to develop these skills:

  • Compassion: You will be offering therapy to patients who need your help and support. It is vital that you treat them with compassion and can offer them the emotional reassurance that they need.

  • Physical strength: You will be lifting patients or parts of their bodies such as the legs and arms, so you will need to be able to bend, kneel, squat, stand and lean with ease, as these actions will form the majority of your working day.

  • Attention to detail: You must pay attention to the therapy plan that the occupational therapist has tailored for the patient without deviation. You must also take accurate patient notes.

Occupational therapy assistant work environment

Occupational therapy assistants can find employment in a hospital, nursing home, physician’s clinic or a dedicated occupational therapist’s office. Some roles involve working in the patient’s home and traveling to each location. The working hours can be full or part-time. The scheduling will depend on the facility as there could be weekend and evening hours to help the patients to attend appointments outside of business hours.

Occupational therapy assistants spend a great deal of time interacting with patients and helping them to be successful with their therapy. It is a practical, patient-facing role. You may consult with patients in a private room, gym, in their workplace or in a group environment, which occurs in hospital wards and nursing care settings. You may have an administration office to complete patient notes, or you may be expected to complete these as you work with the client.

The role of an occupational therapy assistant will include the following aspects:

  • The majority of the working day will be spent standing and walking while working with patients

  • Lifting therapy equipment

  • Repeated actions that include bending and stretching

How to become an occupational therapy assistant

Following these steps will help you to become an occupational therapy assistant:

1. Gain the education you need.

You should start by reading the job listings for occupational therapy assistants in your state so that you can be sure of the required education. Occasionally, employers may prefer you to have a bachelor’s degree. 

2. Build your experience through practical hours.

Once you have finished high school, consider volunteering alongside an occupational therapist. This will make you a more impressive candidate for entering your OTA degree and will be a welcome addition to your resume. Employers prefer candidates with more practical experience.

3. Qualify for your state license.

This step is essential and proves to employers that you have all of the necessary theoretical and practical knowledge to make an excellent OTA. 

4. Create your resume.

Include all relevant information, such as your highest level of education, any certifications, work history and soft skills. A well-structured resume will help you to find a position as an occupational therapy assistant.

5. Apply for jobs as an occupational therapy assistant.

Search job listings to find positions you are qualified for. Some employers stipulate that you must have several years of experience or have worked with certain patient sectors. Remember to increase your chances of success by adapting your resume and cover letter for each job application.

Occupational therapy assistant job description example

County Health Care is hiring an occupational therapy assistant to provide our residents with wellness and therapy programs under the supervision of our occupational therapist. You will help our residents to restore function and maintain their physical health. You will provide activities such as games, dance and fitness, and interact with the patients within the framework of our established programs with the end goal of improving their lives, level of comfort and mental states.

Qualifications:

  • Must be National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy-certified and state-licensed

  • At least one year’s experience in a similar role

  • Basic Life Support certification

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