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What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

Occupational therapy (OT) is a rewarding, hands-on medical career focused on helping and supporting individuals of all ages recover, develop, or improve everyday living skills. If you are interested in pursuing a career as an OT, today’s post includes everything you need to know about this holistic medical career. We will explore the role of an occupational therapist in depth, including occupational therapists meaning, roles, responsibilities, education, specialties, and more.

What Does an Occupational Therapist Actually Do?

The American Occupational Therapy Association<sup>1</sup> defines an occupational therapist as someone who “helps people across their lifespan participate in the things they want and/or need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations)” – i.e., activities of daily living, work, play, education, leisure, rest and sleep, and social participation. Although this definition provides insight into what “occupational” means, it does not answer the burning question: what exactly does an occupational therapist do?

OTs work with patients whose illness, disability, or injury impacts their ability to perform activities of daily living (ADL). The role of an occupational therapist is to apply evidence-based practices and a holistic perspective to help patients reach their goals. Occupational therapy differs from physical therapy or nursing because it focuses on treating the whole patient rather than a specific injury or physical disability. For example, a post-stroke patient can benefit from occupational therapy to improve functional abilities and regain independence through therapies that facilitate motor and cognitive rehabilitation.

Another common example of occupational therapy is post-surgery interventions to get the patient back to performing daily activities. For example, if a patient has knee replacement surgery, the occupational therapist will assess and work with the patient after surgery to help them regain mobility and function. This can involve pain management (positioning, gentle exercises, ice or heat therapy, and relaxation techniques), range of motion interventions, safe mobility and transfer techniques (in and out of bed, etc.), and activities of daily living (ADL) training.

However, occupational therapy is not exclusive to older demographics; people of all ages can benefit from OT, including children. What does an occupational therapist do for a child? Let’s say a toddler displays signs of delayed fine motor skill development. Difficulty mastering these skills within expected timelines can impact their ability to perform everyday tasks, like tying shoes, writing, buttoning, or using utensils. In this case, the role of an occupational therapist is to assess the child’s strengths and challenges to develop targeted interventions. These strategies and therapies can help the child overcome motor challenges, participate fully in daily activities, and reach their full potential.

Occupational Therapist Roles and Responsibilities

Occupational therapists can work with people of all ages anywhere needed, such as at home, work, other places of business, hospitals, or rehab facilities. However, they do not diagnose conditions. Instead, an occupational therapist’s role is to assess the patient’s needs and identify goals for overcoming physical, mental, and social challenges. During the initial assessment, the occupational therapist will review medical histories, ask questions, and observe actions and tasks to determine the best treatment plan.

Armed with this information, occupational therapists are responsible for creating, implementing, and managing a treatment plan to help patients reach their goals. Although everyone’s goals are different, some examples of what an occupational therapist can help facilitate include:

  • Getting dressed.
  • Writing or typing.
  • Taking medication.
  • Shopping for groceries.
  • Driving or using public transportation.
  • Using a computer or other technology.
  • Managing and regulating sensory input.
  • Post-surgery mobility and reintegration into activities of daily living (ADL)

Following are some typical daily activities or duties an occupational therapist may perform during the course of a treatment plan:

  • Review the patient’s medical history and assess their need for support.
  • Evaluate the patient’s home, workplace, and community to make adaptations as needed.
  • Develop a treatment plan with defined goals and clear stages.
  • Define the patient’s need for assistive devices, such as wheelchairs, ramps, or adaptive seating, and execute training for proper use.
  • Help and support patients perform everyday tasks that have either become too difficult or are no longer possible. (i.e., taking medication, dressing, driving, cooking, etc.)
  • Teach the patient and caregivers how to use equipment selected for their support.
  • Support the patient’s movement and independence by demonstrating exercises and techniques that enable goals.
  • Work closely with the patient’s network of health professionals, caregivers, social workers, teachers, and more to determine the best care and process.
  • Offer education for the patient’s family, coworkers, employer, and school.
  • Assess the progress of the patient to determine future interventions and update other health professionals on progress or changes.

Overall, the occupational therapist works with patients independently and in conjunction with primary care and other providers to help the patient learn how to overcome challenges, meet objectives, and participate in daily activities safely.

Required Skills

Occupational therapy work requires both soft and hard skills. Among the soft skills, empathy, patience, and compassion are paramount. After all, occupational therapists typically work with patients during a difficult time, tasked with improving the patient’s daily activities and interactions.

Strong communication, problem-solving, and organizational skills are also necessary for comprehensive treatment implementation and management. Also, technical skills, including familiarity with computer systems and databases, are essential and often heavily utilized throughout patient cases. In some cases, occupational therapists may also need to lift and move clients.

Required Education

OTs have training in the physical, psychological, and social aspects of human functioning. Overall, their education is grounded in anatomical and physiological concepts and psychological perspectives. The following outlines the typical educational pathway required to work in occupational therapy.

  • Bachelor’s Degree: Many OTs acquire a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as psychology, biology, kinesiology, sociology, or health sciences.
  • Graduate Degree/Occupational Therapy: A master’s or doctoral degree in occupational therapy provides education and training in occupational therapy theory, practice, assessment, intervention, research, and professional ethics.
  • Clinical Fieldwork: Supervised clinical fieldwork in various practice settings, such as hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, community clinics, and mental health facilities, allows students to apply their knowledge and skills in real-world contexts under the guidance of experienced OT practitioners.
  • Licensing and Certification: Once the occupational therapist degrees and fieldwork are acquired and satisfied, the next step is licensing. The occupational therapist licensing requirements vary by state or jurisdiction but typically include passing the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) examination. Also, some states may have additional licensure requirements, such as background checks or jurisprudence exams.

Occupational Therapy Specialties

Occupational therapists can specialize in one or more areas throughout their careers. Adding a specialty demonstrates advanced knowledge in an area they are passionate about, enhances credentials, and opens doors to new job possibilities or grant funding.

The American Occupational Therapy Association offers advanced certification programs in these areas of specialty: Pediatrics (children), Gerontology (seniors), and Physical Rehabilitation. Other Occupational Therapist specialties offered through various advanced certification programs include:

  • Aquatic Therapeutic Exercise – training in aquatic therapy principles and methods, movement mechanics, and safety and risk awareness strategies
  • Assistive Technology – working with wheelchairs, seating products, and other assistive machinery to help patients with disabilities
  • Autism
  • Brain Injuries
  • Clinical Anxiety
  • Diabetes
  • Driving and Community Mobility – advanced education for OTs skilled at evaluating a person’s ability and potential to drive, providing education and adaptations to support driving, and more.
  • Environmental Modification – OTs who earn their Specialty Certification in Environmental Modification (SCEM or SCEM-A) typically work as consultants.
  • Feeding, Eating, and Swallowing (SCFES or SCFES-A) – for OTs who work with patients with sensory processing deficits associated with specific diagnoses.
  • Motor Deficits
  • Hand Therapy
  • Hippotherapy
  • Low Vision – for OTs that focus on visual impairment in children, vision processing deficits related to traumatic brain injury, and eye diseases related to aging (cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy).
  • Lymphedema
  • Mental HealthOTs who work in mental health (cognitive assessment, sensory strategies, group process, therapeutic alliances, and socio-emotional skills) can earn their Board Certification in Mental Health (BCMH) through the AOTA.
  • Neuro-Developmental Treatment
  • Saebo
  • School Systems – OTs who work in school settings can earn their School Systems (SCSS or SCSS-A) certification through the AOTA.
  • Seating and Mobility Specialist

Is an Occupational Therapy Career Worth It?

Not only is occupational therapy a rewarding career – it’s also a growing career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for occupational therapists will likely grow 14 percent from 2021 to 2031, which equates to roughly 10,100 more jobs in the field through the next decade. Furthermore, the median annual wage for occupational therapists was $96,370 in May 2023, placing it well above the national average of $63,795. Therefore, for many, an occupational therapist degree is well worth it.

Becoming an Occupational Therapist

If the roles of occupational therapists described today sound like the right career path, the next step is to obtain the necessary degrees, certifications, and licensure. As an occupational therapist, you can work in various settings, like in patients’ homes, hospitals, schools, or outpatient clinics, with many people needing help. It’s a rewarding career filled with many opportunities to advance and meet others, both medical professionals and patients.

Once licensed, if working with children in the role of occupational therapist sounds like a rewarding career path, then visit KidsCare Home Health for more information about at-home pediatric occupational therapy. As a pediatric home health agency, Kidscare Home Health serves children with special needs across the country. We focus on occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, and nursing as well as provide case management for children up to 18 years old.

Contact KidsCare Home Health Today!

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FAQ - Occupational Therapist Roles

What is the role of an occupational therapist in schools?

OTs in schools help facilitate a supportive and accessible learning environment. Occupational therapists contribute to the development of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities or special needs. They collaborate with teachers, parents, and other members of the IEP team to support students’ educational needs and promote their participation in the school curriculum.

What is the role of occupational therapists in hospitals?

Occupational therapists working in hospitals facilitate patient-centered rehabilitation to promote functional independence and support patients’ recovery and transition to home or other care settings. OTs in hospitals usually work with patients recovering from illnesses, injuries, or surgeries, and their goal is to optimize the patient’s functional outcomes and facilitate participation in daily activities.

What does an occupational therapist assistant do?

Occupational therapist assistants (OTAs) work directly under a licensed occupational therapist, assisting in occupational therapy treatment plans and interventions as needed.

Where can occupational therapists work?

Occupational therapists can work in a variety of environments, including hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, outpatient clinics, schools, pediatric settings, a patient’s home, workplaces, and long-term care facilities.

What is the difference between an occupational therapist and a physical therapist?

Although occupational therapists and physical therapists (i.e. physiotherapists) are similar, their roles have distinct differences. Occupational therapists address a broad range of physical, cognitive, emotional, and psychosocial factors that influence a person’s ability to engage in activities of daily living, work, school, and social participation. Physical therapists, on the other hand, primarily focus on restoring and optimizing physical function, mobility, and movement patterns in individuals with various health conditions.