Occupational Therapist vs. Speech Pathologist

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Rehabilitative care is arguably one of the most important aspects of patient care. Every year, millions of Americans face healthcare challenges that require rehabilitative care, such as brain injuries, mobility issues, or chronic pain. These individuals may have experienced a traumatic event such as a stroke or automobile accident that caused long-lasting impairments, or they may have been born with a physical or developmental disability they carry with them throughout life.

Medical professionals such as occupational therapists and speech pathologists work with these patients to regain their abilities and restore their quality of life.

When comparing occupational therapists vs. speech pathologists, differences include the types of patients they work with and the kind of rehabilitative care they provide. Commonalities between the roles include their focus on helping patients restore certain functions and the requirement of a master’s degree to practice, which can be pursued after earning an undergraduate degree in a field such as communication sciences or physiology.

A speech therapist is working with a patient on saying the letter “O.”

What occupational therapists and speech pathologists do

As previously mentioned, both occupational therapists and speech pathologists work on the rehabilitative side of healthcare. However, the two roles have different functions and generally work with patients who are overcoming different sets of challenges.

Occupational therapist role and job duties

Occupational therapists work with a wide variety of patients who are ill, overcoming injury, or were born with a physical or developmental disability. Examples include those affected by cerebral palsy, brain injury, or a traumatic accident. These patients often have difficulty performing everyday tasks related to mobility or motor skills such as navigating a staircase, walking, or getting dressed.

The role of an occupational therapist is to assist these patients in overcoming or otherwise adapting to their limitations. Depending on the patient’s specific healthcare challenge, an occupational therapist will recommend a change to the patient’s environment to accommodate their challenge, prescribe special equipment (such as a wheelchair, brace, or grabber), or develop a specialized treatment plan that encompasses several modifications.

Occupational therapists also work closely with patients’ families to convey important information about how they can assist in the patient’s overall care. As with any rehabilitative care role, the end goal is to get the patient to a point where they can function as independently as possible and to improve their quality of life.

Speech pathologist role and job duties

While speech pathologists (also called speech-language pathologists and speech therapists) also work in rehabilitation, they specialize in working with patients facing challenges related to speech, communication, or swallowing disorders. These disorders have many root causes, including traumatic brain injury, stroke, hearing loss/impairment, developmental disability, autism, a cleft palate, or Parkinson’s disease.

A speech pathologist first evaluates a patient’s abilities and specific challenges. Then they identify treatment options and formulate a plan tailored to that patient and their needs. Some common conditions that speech pathologists help with are fluency issues (stuttering), voice disorders, and aiding in the development of swallowing muscles.

Speech therapy is often a lengthy process, which means that a speech pathologist may work with the same patient for several months or even years. The end goal is to bring the patient to a point where they are swallowing and communicating as well as possible.

Occupational therapist vs. speech pathologist: Similarities

When comparing the two roles — occupational therapist vs. speech pathologist — clear similarities can be found. Considering that occupational therapists and speech pathologists work with patients who are attempting to overcome significant healthcare challenges, both professions require a well-developed sense of compassion and empathy. Additionally, both roles require strong communication and critical thinking skills. They need to not only be able to solve problems related to the condition in question, but also must effectively communicate their plan of action to the patient and their family.

Occupational therapists and speech pathologists also have strict educational requirements: Both roles require a master’s degree. Occupational therapists require a master’s in occupational therapy, while speech pathologists must earn a master’s degree in speech-language pathology. Before pursuing a master’s degree, these professionals typically pursue a bachelor’s in fields such as communication sciences, healthcare, biology, or physiology.

Occupational therapists and speech pathologists also must be licensed or registered with their state to practice. Occupational therapists must pass the national examination administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). State licensing requirements for speech therapists vary, but speech therapists typically earn their Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP), which is offered through the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

Occupational therapist vs. speech pathologist: Differences

Delving further into the occupational therapist vs. speech pathologist comparison, we’ll now break down the differences between these two roles. As already mentioned, occupational therapists and speech pathologists take different educational paths in graduate school. They also work with different types of patients and play different roles in their rehabilitation.

Occupational therapists assist people in completing daily tasks such as eating, bathing, and dressing. Special equipment is often required to accomplish these tasks. Speech pathologists, on the other hand, assess, diagnose, treat, and prevent numerous speech and swallowing disorders. Speech therapy is widely considered to be far less physically demanding than occupational therapy.

There’s also the salary difference to consider when comparing occupational therapists to speech pathologists, though the variation is fairly minor. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), speech-language pathologists had a median annual salary of $80,480 in 2020 compared to occupational therapists, whose median salary was $86,280 at that same time. Salaries for the top 10% of earners in both fields are more than $122,000.

Job growth projections for these careers also differ slightly. The BLS projects the role of speech-language pathologists to grow by 25% from 2019 to 2029, compared to 16% for occupational therapists. Both have strong growth projections compared to the average for all occupations (4%).

A role to help others

Individuals considering occupational therapist vs. speech pathologist careers should note that both roles offer meaningful and personally rewarding work with attractive growth opportunities. The best way to embark on either career is to pursue higher education. Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Communication Sciences and Disorders program can be a great first step on the road to earning a master’s degree. Courses such as Clinical Methods and Management, Anatomy and Physiology, and Healthcare Management Terminology can help you launch your career in the rehabilitation industry.

Learn more about Maryville University’s degree program today, and get started pursuing your professional goals.

Recommended Reading

How to Become a Speech Language Pathologist: A Guide

3 Hearing Loss Types: Effects and Common Treatments

How Does Language Acquisition Work?


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, “General Information About ASHA Certification”

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, “Planning Your Education in Communication Sciences and Disorders”

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, “Speech-Language Pathologists”

Houston Chronicle, “How to Compare Physical, Occupational & Speech Therapist Occupations”

MedlinePlus, “Rehabilitation”

National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT)

SpeechPathology.com, “What Is the Difference Between a Speech Therapist and a Speech Pathologist?”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Therapists”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Speech-Language Pathologists”

WebMD, “What Is Occupational Therapy?”