An occupational therapist could...
|Help a patient figure out ways to continue the activities he or she loves to do after an amputation.||Play specialized games with a developmentally delayed child to help him master fine motor skills.|
|Help a newly disabled person relearn how to do daily tasks, like cooking in her own home.||Help patients find adaptive equipment that can assist them in their living and working environments.|
Key Facts & Information
|Overview||Think of all the things you do as you go about your day, like putting on your shoes, buttoning your shirt, turning on a faucet, typing on a keyboard, going grocery shopping, picking up laundry, making a sandwich, or using a spoon. Now imagine trying to maintain your independence if an injury or illness made it difficult for you to use your hands, move your arms, or even walk. Occupational therapists are the healthcare providers who help people regain independence by developing or restoring their skills so they can continue functioning in their daily lives.|
|Key Requirements||Observant, compassionate, empathetic, analytical, with outstanding communication skills and a positive, patient attitude|
|Minimum Degree||Master's degree|
|Subjects to Study in High School||Biology, physics, algebra, geometry; if available, psychology, physiology, sociology|
|Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)||Much Faster than Average (21% or more) In Demand!|
Training, Other Qualifications
Occupational therapists are regulated in all 50 states. Individuals pursuing a career as an occupational therapist usually need to earn a post-baccalaureate degree from an accredited college or university, or education that is deemed equivalent.
Education and Training
A master's degree or higher in occupational therapy is the typical minimum requirement for entry into the field. In addition, occupational therapists must attend an academic program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) in order to sit for the national certifying exam. In 2009, 150 master's degree programs or combined bachelor's and master's degree programs were accredited, and four doctoral degree programs were accredited. Most schools have full-time programs, although a growing number are offering weekend or part-time programs as well. Coursework in occupational therapy programs include the physical, biological, and behavioral sciences, as well as the application of occupational therapy theory and skills. All accredited programs require at least 24 weeks of supervised fieldwork as part of the academic curriculum.
People considering this profession should take high school courses in biology, chemistry, physics, health, art, and the social sciences. College admissions offices also look favorably on paid or volunteer experience in the healthcare field. Relevant undergraduate majors include biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, liberal arts, and anatomy.
Occupational therapists need patience and strong interpersonal skills to inspire trust and respect in their clients. Patience is necessary because many clients might not show immediate improvement. Ingenuity and imagination in adapting activities to individual needs are assets. Those working in home healthcare services also must be able to adapt to a variety of settings.
Nature of the Work
Occupational therapists help patients improve their ability to perform tasks in living and working environments. They work with individuals who suffer from a mentally, physically, developmentally, or emotionally disabling condition. Occupational therapists use treatments to develop, recover, or maintain the daily living and work skills of their patients. The therapist helps clients not only to improve their basic motor functions and reasoning abilities, but also to compensate for permanent loss of function. The goal is to help clients have independent, productive, and satisfying lives.
Occupational therapists help clients perform all types of activities, from using a computer to caring for daily needs, such as dressing, cooking, and eating. Physical exercises might be used to increase strength and dexterity, while other activities might be chosen to improve visual acuity or the ability to discern patterns. For example, a client with short-term memory loss might be encouraged to make lists to aid recall, and a person with coordination problems might be assigned exercises to improve hand-eye coordination. Occupational therapists also use computer programs to help clients improve decision-making, abstract-reasoning, problem-solving, and perceptual skills, as well as memory, sequencing, and coordination—all of which are important for independent living.
Patients with permanent disabilities, such as spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy, often need special instruction to master certain daily tasks. For these individuals, therapists demonstrate the use of adaptive equipment, including wheelchairs, orthoses, eating aids, and dressing aids. They also design or build special equipment needed at home or at work, including computer-aided adaptive equipment. They teach clients how to use the equipment to improve communication and to control various situations in their environment.
Some occupational therapists treat individuals whose ability to function in a work environment has been impaired. These practitioners might arrange employment, evaluate the work space, plan work activities, and assess the client's progress. Therapists also might collaborate with the client and the employer to modify the work environment so that the client can succeed at work.
Assessing and recording a client's activities and progress is an important part of an occupational therapist's job. Accurate records are essential for evaluating clients, for billing, and for reporting to physicians and other healthcare providers.
Occupational therapists might work exclusively with individuals in a particular age group or with a particular disability. In schools, for example, they evaluate children's capabilities, recommend and provide therapy, modify classroom equipment, and help children participate in school activities. A therapist might work with children individually, lead small groups in the classroom, consult with a teacher, or serve on an administrative committee. Some therapists provide early intervention therapy to infants and toddlers who have, or are at risk of having, developmental delays. Therapies might include facilitating the use of the hands and promoting skills for listening, following directions, social play, dressing, or grooming.
Other occupational therapists work with elderly patients. These therapists help the elderly lead more productive, active, and independent lives through a variety of methods. Therapists with specialized training in driver rehabilitation assess an individual's ability to drive using both clinical and on-the-road tests. The evaluations allow the therapist to make recommendations for adaptive equipment, training to prolong driving independence, and alternative transportation options. Occupational therapists also work with clients to assess their homes for hazards and to identify environmental factors that contribute to falls.
Occupational therapists in mental-health settings treat individuals who are mentally ill, developmentally challenged, or emotionally disturbed. To treat these problems, therapists choose activities that help people learn to engage in and cope with daily life. Activities might include time-management skills, budgeting, shopping, homemaking, and the use of public transportation. Occupational therapists also work with individuals who are dealing with alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, eating disorders, or stress-related disorders.
In large rehabilitation centers, therapists might work in spacious rooms equipped with machines, tools, and other devices that generate noise. The work can be tiring because therapists are on their feet much of the time. Therapists also face hazards, such as back strain, from lifting and moving clients and equipment.
Occupational therapists working for full-time for one employer usually work a 40-hour week. Around 31 percent of occupational therapists worked part-time. It is not uncommon for occupational therapists to work for more than one employer at multiple facilities, which might involve significant travel time. Those working in schools might participate in meetings and in other activities both during and after the school day.
On the Job
- Plan, organize, and conduct occupational therapy programs in hospital, institutional, or community settings to help rehabilitate those impaired because of illness, injury or psychological or developmental problems.
- Test and evaluate patients' physical and mental abilities and analyze medical data to determine realistic rehabilitation goals for patients.
- Select activities that will help individuals learn work and life-management skills within limits of their mental and physical capabilities.
- Evaluate patients' progress and prepare reports that detail progress.
- Complete and maintain necessary records.
- Train caregivers how to provide for the needs of a patient during and after therapy.
- Recommend changes in patients' work or living environments, consistent with their needs and capabilities.
- Develop and participate in health promotion programs, group activities, or discussions to promote client health, facilitate social adjustment, alleviate stress, and prevent physical or mental disability.
- Consult with rehabilitation team to select activity programs and coordinate occupational therapy with other therapeutic activities.
- Plan and implement programs and social activities to help patients learn work and school skills and adjust to handicaps.
- Design and create, or requisition, special supplies and equipment, such as splints, braces and computer-aided adaptive equipment.
- Conduct research in occupational therapy.
- Provide training and supervision in therapy techniques and objectives for students and nurses and other medical staff.
- Help clients improve decision making, abstract reasoning, memory, sequencing, coordination and perceptual skills, using computer programs.
- Advise on health risks in the workplace and on health-related transition to retirement.
- Lay out materials such as puzzles, scissors and eating utensils for use in therapy, and clean and repair these tools after therapy sessions.
- Provide patients with assistance in locating and holding jobs.
Companies That Hire Occupational Therapists
Do you have a specific question about a career as an Occupational Therapist that isn't answered on this page? Post your question on the Science Buddies Ask an Expert Forum.
- O*Net Online. (2016). National Center for O*Net Development. Retrieved July 1, 2017, from https://www.onetonline.org/
- American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. (n.d.). Hear Their Career Stories. Retrieved March 20, 2014, from https://www.aota.org/Students/Prospective/Stories.aspx
- LifeWorks. (n.d.). Meet A Real Occupational Therapist, Hanna Hildenbrand. Retrieved March 20, 2014, from http://science.education.nih.gov/LifeWorks.nsf/Interviews/Hanna+Hildenbrand
- LifeWorks. (n.d.). Meet A Real Occupational Therapist, Karoline Harvey. Retrieved March 20, 2014, from http://science.education.nih.gov/LifeWorks.nsf/Interviews/Karoline+Harvey
- U.S. News and World Report. (2008, December 12). Best Careers 2009: Occupational Therapist Job Description. Retrieved March 20, 2014, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNFDXx2jPUE
- University of Southern California. (2009, February 12). Occupational Therapy Practice: Pediatrics (Sensory Integration). Retrieved May 7, 2010, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qY_JKPt7spc
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