Occupational therapy is a large, but often misunderstood profession. A US study found that spending more money on occupational therapists was the only factor that was associated with lower hospital readmission rates for patients with heart failure, pneumonia, and acute myocardial infarction. The authors suggested that this might be because the profession of occupational therapy uniquely focusses on the function and social needs of patients which will lead to hospital readmission if they are not addressed.
Occupational therapists don’t just work in hospitals. They also play a critical role in keeping people out of hospital and functioning to their optimal ability and can be found in community health centres, aged care facilities, childcare centres and other education facilities, mental health, alcohol and drug, corporate and industrial settings and correctional facilities – amongst others.
The role of the occupational therapy profession in optimising function, independence, quality of life, and health means that they contribute an important role in supporting people of all ages to participate in the activities of everyday living.
For an understanding of the diversity of roles that OTs have and the interesting places that OT can take you, see our interview with paediatric OT Deb Hopper.
What do occupational therapists do?
Occupational therapists (OTs) promote health and wellbeing by providing therapy that enables people to participate in various activities of daily everyday life (occupations). By facilitating occupation, OTs support people to function as active members of their communities.
OTs take a person-centred approach to their work, ensuring their approaches respect the diverse characteristics, needs, and goals of the people they work with; in this way, the OT profession promotes the social values of diversity and inclusivity.
Some of the activities OTs work to support include self-care and hygiene, caring for others, working, learning, and playing, cooking and eating, socialising, exercising, and any other activity of daily living you can think of.
The role of the OT is broad and diverse, and is very much dictated by the setting in which they work, the types of clients they work with, and of course, the needs and goals of each individual client.
OTs employ a range of assessments depending on their client’s presentation. They undertake functional, cognitive, and mental health assessments. These assessments aid in the development of the OT management plan. Some occupational therapists specialise in driving assessments.
OTs working in the general community setting often visit people in their home and prescribe environmental modifications (e.g., the installation of handrails, ramps) and equipment (e.g., hand-held shower heads, toilet frames) to optimise safety and independent living. The role of the OT is far broader than home modifications and equipment provision. Just some of the ways OTs enhance participation in daily life include:
- Working with their clients to develop and learn strategies to adapt to life after experiencing a health event, injury, or a medical procedure
- Demonstrating independent living skills to people with intellectual, physical, and learning disabilities
- Working with people with mental health issues to undertake new activities and engage in strategies to improve their symptoms
- Developing innovative solutions and strategies to help people achieve their individual life goals
- Adjusting the work environment so that workers who have experienced an injury or new condition can return to work (this may include vehicle modifications)
- Supporting families and carers of people living with illness and disability.
OTs often work with people with complex or multifactorial conditions and almost always work as part of a multidisciplinary team. Although they have a broad range of skills to address many different factors and issues, they make referrals to other types of health professionals as appropriate.
Where do occupational therapists work?
Occupational therapists are important members of health and social care teams in many countries, including the UK, the USA, Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Jamaica (though very few currently work in Jamaica).
In fact, OTs are so widespread internationally that the World Federation of Occupational Therapists was established in 1952.
OTs work in an incredibly diverse range of settings. Acute hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, mental health services, community health centres, residential aged care facilities, private practice, drug and alcohol services, and specialist clinics are just some of the health settings within which OTs work. They also work in the disability sector, employment services, schools, the criminal justice system, and in academia as researchers and lecturers. OTs also work for agencies that provide case management and care coordination services for people living with chronic and complex conditions
Desirable character traits of occupational therapists
Apart from the wealth of clinical and anatomical knowledge, and OT-specific skills they develop throughout their university training, occupational therapists need to have a range of other qualities and skills.
OTs work with people who are at vulnerable stages of their lives when they may be experiencing grief associated with their reduced level of functioning, so a compassionate and caring disposition goes a long way for these allied health professionals.
OTs need to be able to assess clients, observing the factors that influence their experience of daily life, and develop strategies to optimise their participation and function. They need to be creative and able to think on their feet throughout the broad range of clinical scenarios they may encounter. They must have excellent interpersonal and communication skills so that they can convey sometimes complex information to their clients, carers, and other members of the healthcare team. OTs must be organised, able to manage their time effectively, and yet flexible and adaptable.
What are the professional education and regulatory frameworks for occupational therapists?
In Australia, occupational therapists hold either a bachelor’s degree or Master of Occupational Therapy Practice, which takes between four and six years of full-time study to complete. To practice occupational therapy in the UK and Jamaica, one must hold at least a bachelor’s degree, which takes between three and four years to complete.
In New Zealand, OTs hold a bachelor’s degree, whereas in the USA and Canada, OTs are required to attain a Master’s or Doctorate in Occupational Therapy.
OT students typically undertake clinical practice training in health and/or social care workplaces during their university degree.
OTs are regulated nationally in Australia and the UK via the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency and the Health and Care Professions Council, respectively.
New Zealand, OTs are regulated by the Occupational Therapy Board of New Zealand.
All 50 states in the USA have their own licensure agency that regulates occupational therapy.
OTs in Canada are regulated by their province-specific registration body; occupational therapy is not regulated in the Canadian territories.
In Jamaica, the occupational therapy profession is regulated nationally via the Council of Professions Supplementary to Medicine.
Workforce considerations for occupational therapists
There are already several established specialist areas of practice under the occupational therapy umbrella (e.g., mental health, hand therapy, driving assessments).
Shifts in demographic trends, the COVID-19 pandemic, and rapid advances in technology have all contributed to recent changes in occupational therapy practice and the potential for more sub-specialties. Although this is exciting for the occupational therapy profession, these factors present challenges for OTs working in evolving areas of practice and with increasingly complex patients.
These factors may negatively influence OTs’ job satisfaction and the profession’s sustainability.
Find out more about occupational therapists
Here are some links to websites and resources for and about occupational therapists:
- Occupational Therapy Australia
- Occupational Therapy Board of Australia
- Royal College of Occupational Therapists
- Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists
- Association of Canadian Occupational Therapy Regulatory Organizations
- American Occupational Therapy Association
- Occupational Therapy New Zealand
- The Occupational Therapy Board of New Zealand
- Association of Caribbean Occupational therapists
- Occupational Therapy Association of South Africa
- World Federation of Occupational Therapists