Making the transition can increase your responsibility and earning potential.
Special Focus: Education
According to the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), there are less than 20 active occupational therapy assistant-to-occupational therapist (OTA-to-OT) bridge programs in the United States. OTAs who plan to “bridge” don’t have to apply strictly to programs that bridge — they can apply to traditional OT programs as well.
These bridge programs vary in what they offer. Things to consider when evaluating bridge programs include the type of school the applicant attended, and what type of accreditation that school has. Also, does the applicant already have a bachelor’s degree?
Most, if not all, bridge programs require weekend visits or lab visits, and these also vary from school to school, making location and distance an important factor to consider.
Whatever your reasons for considering a bridge program, there are significant differences between the two positions. We all know about the responsibility aspect, which involves treatment planning, evaluation, and discharge, and the considerable amount of paperwork attached. Remaining an OTA allows you to focus on treatment, as the burden of paperwork lies heavily on the shoulders of the OT.
The authors of this article followed disparate career paths and had different reasons for enrolling in an OTA-to-OT bridge program. I (Quenton McCallister) had wanted to be a hand therapist during my OTA program, and I didn’t stop going to school once I began my OTA program.
My considerations while evaluating bridge programs were location and distance, tuition cost, and duration of the program. I chose Western New Mexico University because of its proximity to my home in Phoenix, allowing me to drive to the school for required weekends. WNMU was also the first program I could start. At the time I was concerned that the requirements would change to the doctoral level.
I had a specific career goal in mind: becoming a certified hand therapist. This was key in my decision to bridge, as I had to become an OT to become a certified hand therapist.
My colleague and co-author, Joseph Alva, had been an OTA for 12 years before considering the MOT program. He did not want to start over as a freshman, and had not considered this option before.
Alva’s concern was continuing to work while going back to school. WNMU made this option possible by offering classes online and on weekends. With the rising amounts of OTAs in the El Paso, Texas area driving wages down and limiting opportunities, Alva knew he had to start working on his goal. His dream had always been to be an occupational therapist.
The transition was difficult at first, with studies shifting from theory-based learning to evidence-based research. But the struggle paid off, along with supportive classmates and family. Now in a pediatric clinic, Alva loves his new position in occupational therapy, allowing the opportunity to work more independently through care planning and increased freedom with treatments.
After distributing a questionnaire to a group of recently graduated OTs who had bridged, I have noted a few common trends. Most had no specific objective for bridging. However, they did have specific career objectives.
Commonly discussed items include demand for OTs nationwide, increased freedom and responsibility, and increased pay. Several recent graduates mentioned a desire to be involved in academia. Other reasons to enroll in a bridge program included being an independent contractor or starting a rehab business. The higher demand for OTs vs. OTAs was a common theme.
While respondents had decided to bridge at various points in their careers, duration and cost were factors they considered. Using the AOTA list, I randomly selected bridge programs and found tuition to be anywhere from $385 to $839 per credit hour, with various rates for in-state and out-of-state tuition. One school quoted just under $13,000 for a semester. There are various credit requirements for graduation as well.
I also conducted an informal survey asking a class of 33 OTA students whether they planned on bridging to become an OT. Five said they had considered it or were planning to.
In some cases, you might consider bridging not financially feasible, depending on the amount of debt acquired. Using the 2015 ADVANCE Magazine Salary Survey for occupational therapists, in the western region of the country, 21% (the highest percentage) of OTs make $70,000-80,000 per year, while the second-highest bracket (15%) earn $80,000-90,000.
However, 25% of OTAs reported making $30,000-40,000 annually, and another 20% earn between $40,000 and $50,000. In the Northeast, 25% of OTs reported earning $60,000-70,000, and 34% of OTAs earn $40,000-50,000. In the south, 21% of OTs reported making $70,000-80,000 annually, and 25% of OTAs make between $50,000 and $60,000.
While this information is difficult to compare directly, I can relate it to my own experience. Throughout my interview process, OT job offers came with a salary approximately 20-25% higher than my last OTA salary.
According to 2014 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean salary for an occupational therapist is $80,000 annually, with hourly rates from $25 to $54, and the mean salary for an OTA is $57,260 annually, with hourly rates from $17 to $36, which yields just higher than a 25% increase in annual salary.
Also, expected growth for the occupational therapy field is 27% over the next 10 years, and 40% for OTAs. These are both impressive increases considering the national average is 7% overall.
Using Brenau University in Gainesville, Ga., as an example, earning the master of occupational therapy (MSOT) degree costs approximately $89,000. The monthly standard repayment (based on a 6.8% interest rate) for this loan would amount to $1,024 a month, according to the payment estimator at www.studenloans.gov. This doesn’t include any student debt incurred outside of the MSOT degree, such as a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, which is required for entry.
In conclusion, considering the high cost of education and one’s individual career goals, transitioning may not be the best career path for you. Some teaching opportunities can be obtained with a bachelor’s degree.
Also, OTAs can obtain director of rehabilitation and other upper-management positions without a master’s degree.
However, academia often requires a master’s or doctorate degree, especially in post-graduate studies, and some rehabilitation companies require therapists (not assistants) to be directors of rehabilitation.
Bridging OTAs offer something that a new graduate OT cannot: experience. This brings a higher level of skills to perform even the additional duties of the occupational therapist, as the candidate is already familiar with both positions.
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Brenau MSOT Estimated Cost. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2015, from https://www.brenau.edu/healthsciences/occupationaltherapy/msot/msot-cost/
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