Welcome to the world of occupational therapy (OT). You are about to learn about a profession that can truly make a difference in a person’s life.
As a practitioner in OT you can improve the lives of people, from newborns to the elderly, by providing them with the knowledge, skills and abilities to achieve independence and enjoy life to its fullest.
“I truly enjoy my profession because of its uniqueness,” says Kashala Erby, OTR/L, who works for Sundance Rehabilitation’s Montgomery Village Health Care Center in Gaithersberg, M.D.
“I think the fundamental knowledge that we learn, coupled with clinical reasoning and creativity, makes us a distinct profession,” Erby continues. “I value occupational therapy as a means to influence, restore and rehabilitate.”
A Career in OT: Challenging, Rewarding
Occupational therapy, or “OT” as it is often referred, is a health care profession that uses occupational, or “purposeful,” activity to help those individuals whose tasks of daily living are impaired by developmental delay, physical injury, medical or psychiatric illness, a behavior problem, or a psychological disability. Practitioners in OT evaluate function through an analysis of human performance, relationships and situations. They also engage clients in experiential learning and problem solving activities. Specialties within the field include, but are not limited to: gerontology, pediatrics, developmental disabilities, mental health, prosthetics training, spinal cord rehabilitation, school-based practice and hand therapy.
OTs need to be both people-focused and science-oriented. They must be creative, innovative and well trained in the functions of the mind and body.
Good communication skills are also a hot commodity in the OT field. Brushing up on such skills will greatly benefit all prospective or current OT employees. Emily Groth, who is in the process of completing her master’s degree in OT and serves as the South Carolina representative to the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) Representative Assembly, agrees that communication skills come in handy in occupation therapy, especially for OTs working with children.
“I greatly enjoy interacting with the families and teachers [of my young patients] in order to determine the best placement for them in the school system,” Groth says.
There is no question that occupational therapy is challenging work, however, there are plenty of rewards that come from making a dramatic impact in patient’s lives.
“I really enjoy finding the modification to an environment or activity that will allow a child to be as successful as possible,” Groth adds.
If occupational therapy is an area of allied health that you’re interested in pursuing, you’ll be please to know that this is a great time to enter the field. As the number of middle-aged and elderly individuals increases, the demand for therapeutic services, including occupational therapy, also multiplies. Currently, job growth within nearly all health care disciplines are projected to increase at a much faster rate than other field, but the job outlook for practitioners in OT in particular is expected to increase by 21-35%, according to the U. S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Salaries for practitioners in OT are also on the rise; according to the ADVANCE 2003 Salary Survey, full-time practitioners in OT salaries show an average increase of $9,000 in the past four years. The new national annual average salary for OTs is $51,352, which takes into account professionals in all work settings and with all degrees of experience and education. Occupational therapy assistants, based on all settings and levels of experience, show an average annual salary of $35,635 in the past year $8,000 higher than the average in 1999.
An OT Overview
Occupational therapy is a career for individuals who care about people and have a desire to learn, achieve, and contribute their best to society and the profession. OT’s ultimate goal is to help their clients lead independent, productive and satisfying lives.
“Occupational therapy allows me to interact on a deeply personal level with people from every walk of life and with all levels of ability,” Groth says. “I am able to assist them regain independence in activities of daily life that are easy to take for granted, such as dressing, bathing, eating, and participating in play and leisure activities.”
Practitioners in OT may implement physical exercises to increase the strength and dexterity of their patients, or paper-and-pencil exercises may be chosen to improve visual acuity and the ability to discern patterns. A client with short-term memory loss, for instance, might be encouraged to make lists to aid in recall. One with coordination problems might be assigned exercises to improve hand-eye coordination. Practitioners in OT 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.
For those with permanent functional disability, such as a spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy or muscular dystrophy, therapists instruct in the use of adaptive equipment, such as wheelchairs, splints, and aids for eating and dressing. They also design or make special equipment needed at home or at work. Therapists develop and teach clients with severe limitations to operate computer aided adaptive equipment that helps them to communicate and control other aspects of their environment.
Some occupational therapists, called industrial therapists, treat individuals whose ability to function in a work environment has been impaired. They arrange employment, plan work activities and evaluate the client’s progress.
Practitioners in OT may work exclusively with individuals in a particular age group or with particular disabilities. In schools, for example, OTs evaluate children’s abilities, recommend and provide therapy, modify classroom equipment, and in general, help children participate as fully as possible in school programs and activities.
Groth, who works with children aged three to 18 with various levels of ability ranging from severe autism and orthopedic handicaps to mild coordination disorders and difficulty with handwriting, says, “Educating the child, the family and the educational team on how to improve fine and visual motor skills, self-care and sensory processing skills is the biggest component of my job.
“The children I work with bring me incredible joy and often teach me things about life that I’ve never considered before,” she adds. “The first time they can form their name independently or fasten the button on their pants or play with a special toy all by themselves is a very cherished moment.”
Practitioners in OT in mental health settings treat individuals who are mentally ill, mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed. To treat these problems, therapists choose activities that help people learn to cope with daily life. Activities include time-management skills, budgeting, shopping, homemaking and use of public transportation. They may also work with individuals who are dealing with alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, eating disorders or stress-related disorders.
Recording a client’s activities and progress is an important part of any practitioner’s job. Accurate records are essential for evaluating clients billing and reporting to physicians and others.
Practitioners in OT are employed in a wide range of workplaces hospitals, schools, nursing homes and home health care programs and they serve as employees of public or private institutions or as private practitioners.
Groth has worked in acute, sub-acute and outpatient hospital settings, as well as in an assisted living facility for the elderly. “The diversity of practice areas insures that one will never be bored or lose interest [in the field],” she asserts. “No matter what the setting is, the goal of the therapist is to help restore [their patients] to their highest level of independence.”
Choose Your Role
Along with registered occupational therapists, OT assistants and aides are in increasing demand to assist a ever-growing elderly population. Insurance carriers are also encouraging more occupation therapy to be delegated to OT assistants and aides because it helps reduce the cost of therapy.
In the field of OT, education determines at what level one will work. Those who complete an associate’s degree or certificate program work under the direction of a registered occupational therapist as occupational therapist assistants. Occupational therapist aides however, receive most of their training on the job. Since aides are not licensed, they have more limitations on what they can do in comparison to the range of tasks an occupational therapist assistant is required to do.
However, both OT assistants and aides generally provide rehabilitative services to persons with mental, physical, emotional or developmental impairments. Their ultimate goal is to improve clients’ quality of life by helping them compensate for limitations. For example, a therapist assistant will help an injured worker reenter the workforce through improved motor skill development or may assist a client with learning disabilities increase his or her independence.
Occupational therapist assistants record their client’s progress with rehabilitative activities and exercises outlined in a treatment plan and report back to a registered OT. They make sure clients are performing the exercises and activities properly and provide encouragement. The aide prepares materials, assembles equipment used during treatment, and is responsible for a range of clerical tasks. Duties can include scheduling appointments, answering the telephone, restocking or ordering depleted supplies, and filling out insurance forms.
Those entering at the assistant or aide level of OT should also be aware of the physical endurance that is necessary on the job. Assistants and aides will need some strength in order to lift patients, and they may be required to kneel, stoop or stand for long periods of time. For most, however, this is a minor concern and is overshadowed by the thrill of watching patients succeed and improve through proper care and encouragement.
Occupational therapist assistant candidates interested in improving their admission chances should make sure they have mastered high school algebra, chemistry, biology, English, computer skills and have completed volunteer hours in the field. Training to be an OT assistant includes an introduction to health care, basic medical terminology, anatomy and physiology. During the second year of school, course work will involve mental health, gerontology and pediatrics. Students will also complete 16 weeks of supervised fieldwork. Upon successful completion of academic coursework, assistants must pass a national certification examination in order to receive the title of certified occupational therapist assistant.
Becoming an OTR
Presently a bachelor’s degree is sufficient as a minimum education requirement for entry into the OT profession as an occupational therapist registered (OTR). Starting in January 2007, however, all new occupational therapists registered will be required to complete a master’s degree. In both cases, however, candidates must also pass a national certification examination in order to become an OTR and then receive licensure in the state where they will practice.
Occupational therapy course work includes physical, biological and behavioral sciences and the application of occupational therapy theory and skills. Completion of six months of supervised fieldwork is also required.
Volunteering in a variety of OT areas during one’s education is a critical step in deciding where one would like to work in the field. When students understand what role they want as a therapist, it can make their OT education experience more focused and enjoyable. Kashala Erby, who was a grad student intern and practice associate at the American Occupational Therapy Association, advises practitioners in OT to find a mentor in the field, volunteer in various practice areas, and get involved with the AOTA as a student member.
Erby also brings up the issue of lack of diversity in the occupational therapy field. She believes that the profession needs to embrace and encourage more minorities to enter OT. “While this is a female dominated profession,” Erby says, “as a minority woman in [OT], I face some of the same challenges I would have to face in any other profession.”
The ADVANCE 2003 Salary Survey shows that women greatly outnumber men in the profession. However, men report higher average salaries. The male survey respondents reported average salaries of $55,216 for occupational therapy and $37,425 for occupational therapy assistants; women reported an average salary of $48,763 for OTs and $32,927 for OT assistants.
Paving the Way to a Career in OT
Of course not everyone who ends up in OT initially starts out pursuing the field. When Emily Groth graduated from high school, she aspired to become a pediatric physical therapist. “I went to the University of Central Florida and enrolled in the appropriate prerequisites, however, I soon realized that it wasn’t a perfect fit for me,” she explains.
“My school guidance counselor gave me a test [to determine a more appropriate field]. Occupational therapy was in my top ten fields, and after I job-shadowed an occupational therapist at work, I knew it was for me.
“Engaged with people on such a personal level, the ability to truly help them regain independence, and the diversity of the practice areas drew me into this field,” Groth says.
As she asserts, the diversity of work environments is a plus for many in the OT field. According to the ADVANCE 2003 Salary Survey, most OTs reported that they are employed in schools or in skilled nursing facilities, but therapists can work in hospitals, offices, clinics, home health agencies, nursing homes, community mental health centers, adult daycare programs, job training services and residential care facilities. As an occupation therapist, your career options are truly never-ending.
Those who will succeed in OT are individuals who have patience and strong interpersonal skills to inspire trust and respect in their clients. Practitioners in OT have ingenuity and imagination in adapting activities to individual needs, a strong commitment to serve people, and an interest in social and biological sciences. And, according to Groth, no matter what area you choose, a career in occupational therapy is “so valuable to society.”
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