Occupational therapists (OTs) are responsible for helping patients improve their ability to function to their highest possible degree of independence. The OT's general mission is to help people be able to perform day-to-day tasks and/or sustain themselves. This type of therapist typically works with individuals who suffer from some type of physically, mentally, developmentally, or emotionally disabling condition. They work closely with their patients to develop, recover, or maintain daily living and work skills so that the patient can strive to lead an independent, productive, and satisfying life. Depending on the client, the therapist may try to improve basic motor functions and reasoning abilities or to compensate for permanent loss of function.
The areas encompassed by occupational therapists are so far-reaching that they can find themselves working with a wide range of clients of varying limitations who need to be cared for in any number of settings. Clients with coordination problems might be assigned exercises to improve hand-eye coordination whereas those with short-term memory loss might be taught to make lists to aid recollection skills. Patients with permanent disabilities, such as spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, or cerebral palsy often require instruction in the use of adaptive equipment such as wheelchairs, orthoses, eating aids, and dressing aids. Some occupational therapists deal with clients who are not fully able to function in a particular work environment. These therapists may need to collaborate with both the client and employer to modify the work environment so that the client can successfully function.
Working with the patient and his/her physician, the occupational therapist decides on a therapy plan which takes into account the patient's specific type of impairment, injury, or deficiency. The plan is constructed in such a way that the rehabilitation goals are realistic and the patient's psychological needs are adequately addressed. The therapist then uses any of a wide variety of tools and methods in conducting the treatment. Physical exercises may be used to increase strength and dexterity, while computer programs are often used to help clients improve decision-making, abstract-reasoning, memory, sequencing, and/or coordination. Therapists often design or build special equipment for their clients and then teach the client how to use the equipment. As an important part of the therapy, the therapist needs to regularly assess and record the client�s activities and progress. Accurate records are essential not only for evaluating the client, but also for billing and for reporting to physicians and other health care providers.
A partial list of the things an occupation therapist is required to do as part of the job might include the following:
- Choose activities that best help individuals learn life-management skills within the limits of their specific capabilities
- Consult with other rehabilitation and therapeutic experts
- Recommend changes in patients' work or living environments as needed
- Help patients re-learn daily living routines
- Design special equipment (e.g., feeding devices, clothing adaptations, or splints)
- Direct activities to help patients with balance and coordination problems
- Supervise coordination exercises
- Teach manual skills to restore physical mobility
- Evaluate patients' progress
- Complete and maintain necessary records
- Prepare reports that detail progress
Most occupational therapists, including those who work in hospitals and other health care settings, normally work a standard 40-hour week. The environment in these settings is typically pleasant, with well-lit, heated, and clean rooms. In large rehabilitation centers, therapists sometimes work in large rooms which tend to be noisy due to the presence of machines, tools, and other noise-generating devices. Therapists who provide home health care tend to spend a significant amount of time driving from one appointment to another. In general, the job can be tiring, due to the need for therapists to be on their feet a good deal of the time. Therapists can also be susceptible to back strain caused by lifting and moving of both equipment and clients.
In a profession where interaction with people is a daily occurrence, it is not surprising that occupational therapists need strong interpersonal skills. Patience is an important character trait required for this occupation because many clients improve very slowly. Social perceptiveness, the awareness of others' reactions and an understanding of why they react as they do, is an invaluable skill for an occupational therapist to possess. Other important character abilities include ingenuity, imagination, and an ability to solve problems. Therapists who work in home health care services also need to be adaptable to a variety of work settings.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (USDL BLS), employment of occupational therapists is expected to grow much faster than the average profession over the next decade. The demand for occupational therapists will be driven largely by an increasing elderly population and by the increasing number of individuals with disabilities or limited function who require therapy services. Also, modern technology will enable more patients with critical problems to survive and many of these patients will need extensive therapy.
Job prospects for licensed occupational therapists are expected to be robust in mostly all settings. Those who work in acute hospital, rehabilitation, and orthopedic venues can look forward to particularly abundant work due to the fact that the elderly receive most of their treatment in these settings. Hospitals will continue to employ a large number of occupational therapists to provide services to inpatients. Schools will employ an increasing amount of occupational therapists to treat an expanding school-age population, to deal with an increase in services for disabled students, and to address a growing prevalence of sensory disorders in children. Therapists with specialized knowledge in a particular area of treatment (e.g., driver rehabilitation and fall-prevention training for the elderly) can also anticipate an enhancement in job opportunities.
Occupational Therapy Schools, Certification, and Licensing
The minimum educational requirement for entry into the field of occupational therapy is a master's degree. There are many colleges and universities which offer occupational therapy programs. In addition to straight master's degree programs, these include some which offer a combined bachelor�s and master�s degree and others which offer an entry-level doctoral degree. Typical programs include coursework in the physical, biological, and behavioral sciences and courses which focus on the application of occupational therapy theory and skills. Most of these programs also include six months of supervised fieldwork.
All states require occupational therapists to be licensed. Requirements for obtaining a license include graduation from an accredited educational program and six months of supervised fieldwork. Accreditation can come from the American Occupational Therapy Association or the World Federation of Occupational Therapy. Candidates are also required to take and pass a national certification examination administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). Those who pass the exam are awarded the title "Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR)". Some states impose additional requirements for therapists who work in certain specialized work settings, including schools and early intervention programs. These requirements may include additional classwork and/or certification in education or early intervention. Many states require periodic renewal of licenses and conditions for renewal usually include the accrual of continuing education credits.
- American Occupational Therapy Association
- The World Federation of Occupational Therapists
- The National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT)
- American Occupational Therapy Foundation
- The British Association of Occupational Therapists
- Rehab License Network- Occupational Therapy Licensure Info
- Center for International Rehabilitation Research Information and Exchange (CIRRIE)
- NARIC: National Rehabilitation Information Center
- HealthWeb: Occupational Therapy
- International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet
- Canadian Occupational Therapy Foundation
- OT Works
- National Library of Medicine
- OT Now
The largest employers of occupational therapists are hospitals. Other major employers include offices of physicians or other health care professionals, nursing care facilities, school systems, rehabilitation centers, public and private educational services, home health care services, outpatient care centers, government agencies, and community care facilities for the elderly. A relatively small percentage of occupational therapists are self-employed. These therapists typically treat clients referred by other health professionals and/or provided contract or consulting services to health care agencies.
Schools for Occupational Therapists are listed in the column to the left.