What is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy uses the therapy of everyday activities to improve a patient’s quality of life. Whether a patient has sustained an injury in their home, is suffering from an illness and is being hospitalized, or has a disability that affects their physical skills, motor skills or behavior, occupational therapy will provide them with the help and resources they need to fully perform their daily tasks.

This rehabilitative field of medicine is quickly expanding, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting 156,800 occupational therapy jobs by 2028. If you have hopes of a career in occupational therapy, you will first have to earn a graduate level degree; either a master’s or an Occupational Therapy Doctorate (OTD).

What Does an OT Do?

Occupational therapists (OTs) are health care professionals who provide their patients with the tools they need to succeed in their day-to-day activities. They closely review their patient’s medical history and needs, observe their patient performing specific tasks, and develop a treatment plan for each patient.

Occupational Therapy Evaluation and Assessment

Occupational therapy treatment often starts with an evaluation and assessment. This is where the therapist reviews their patient’s medical history and notes information regarding their patient’s health status. They also observe and determine where their patient is limited in their ability to perform certain activities.

Occupational Therapy Treatments

There are a variety of options when it comes to occupational therapy treatment. Some facilities and practitioners use group activities to help patients improve their social, communication and physical skills and abilities. Occupational therapy treatments are also offered to individuals in outpatient and inpatient settings.

What Happens After OT Treatment?

While you may have made significant progress throughout your OT treatment, occupational therapists at the OT Potential Club, a popular online forum for practitioners, suggest carrying on with additional training in order to sustain your recovery. Occupational therapists may give you or a caregiver additional resources and information to guide you through continuing therapy on your own once your treatment with an OT has come to an end.

How Do Occupational Therapists Help Patients?

Occupational therapists help patients by administering activities centered around the goals they need to meet. This can include activities that test your motor skills or eye-hand coordination skills, yoga and more. The American Board of Internal Medicine recommends the use of balance activities [PDF, 532 KB] to help patients develop confidence in daily tasks and enhance their physical performance.

Types of Occupational Therapy Interventions

When studying to become an occupational therapist (OT) or an occupational therapist assistant (OTA), you must learn the five types of interventions. Interventions are actions and plans crafted in order to help an individual in OT meet their goals in performing their day-to-day activities.

The five OT interventions include:

  1. Occupations and activities – These types of interventions refer to activities that can be done every day or have a therapeutic purpose. Bathing, dressing and feeding are all examples of interventions that fall within this category.
  2. Preparatory methods and tasks – These types of interventions involve the use of adaptive devices and techniques to help prepare a patient for a specific activity or help them reach their ultimate goal. Take for example a patient recovering from a stroke who’s lost mobility and strength in their hands. They want to be able to feed themselves. An OT may ask the patient to use therapy putty for exercises that will help them regain strength and movement in their hands, rather than having them attempt to feed themselves straight away. The use of therapy putty in this case is a preparatory intervention.
  3. Education and training – Education and training can be beneficial to both patients and their caregivers. Through education and training both parties receive useful information to guide through the treatment process, and in some cases, after the process. Through this type of intervention, a parent or caregiver might learn how to use and support their loved one in the use of an adaptive device.
  4. Advocacy – Advocacy interventions range from cheering on a patient during treatment to teaching them how to advocate for their own needs. An OT may also find themselves advocating for their patient population by serving on the board of an organization seeking to effect policy changes within the field.
  5. Group interventions – Occupational therapists identify opportunities for patients to be a part of a collaborative environment that will be beneficial to their treatment process, recovery and overall wellbeing.

Types of Occupational Therapy Specialties

Becoming an OT will equip you with numerous skills that can be applied to different situations. There are several OT specialties and certifications that you can choose from. If you’re passionate about working with a specific patient population or you have a desire to advance your career, applying for specialty certification might be the next career move for you. The list below includes some common OT specialties available to you:

Pediatric Occupational Therapy

Pediatric occupational therapistsfocus on helping young children, toddlers and infants develop the skills they need to become as independent as they can despite any injuries, illnesses or disabilities.

Practitioners looking to move into this field must apply for their Board Certification in Pediatrics (BCP). The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) offers the certification. A completed application form, an application fee, and a professional degree in occupational therapy, are among the list of requirements for licensing. Contact AOTA for more information on what you will need to submit in your BCP application.

Once you have submitted your application materials, a peer-reviewed process is carried out to ensure that you meet the licensing criteria and can demonstrate an advanced skillset in pediatric occupational therapy, upon licensing. This year however, AOTA will start offering exam-based certifications in lieu of the peer review process.

Gerontology Occupational Therapy

Gerontological or geriatric occupational therapists focus on strengthening the daily life skills of older adults. This type of therapy can help older adults to achieve more independence by working closely with them to overcome their daily challenges.

Individuals who want to specialize in geriatric occupational therapy must obtain their Board Certification in Gerontology (BCG). To be eligible for this certification also offered by AOTA, you will need to have a completed application form, an application fee, a professional degree in occupational therapy, proof of certification from an AOTA-recognized regulatory body, and more. Contact AOTA for more information on what you will need to submit in your BCG application.

Feeding, Eating, and Swallowing in Occupational Therapy

Part of daily living includes feeding, eating and swallowing. Occupational therapists in this field [PDF, 229 KB] specialize in providing assistance and management to individuals who are struggling with their ability to participate in any of these activities.

Practitioners must obtain AOTA’s Specialty Certification in Feeding, Eating and Swallowing (SCFES, SCFES-A). Those seeking a specialty certification in feeding, eating and swallowing will have to submit an application that includes a completed application form, an application fee, and proof of certification from an AOTA-recognized regulatory body, among other requirements. Contact AOTA for a list of all required application materials.

Low Vision Occupational Therapy

Low vision occupational therapists focus on reducing the impact of a patient’s vision impairment on their daily routine and helping them live an independent life. Low vision occupational therapists achieve this by teaching their patients new skills, modifying their tasks or making changes to their environments, and at times, collaborating with vision experts such as optometrists, ophthalmologists and teachers of the visually impaired.

To become a low vision occupational therapist, you must obtain AOTA’s Specialty Certification in Low Vision (SCLV, SCLV-A). Similar to the specialty certifications detailed above, you will have to submit a completed application form and fee, proof of certification from an AOTA-recognized regulatory body, and more. Contact AOTA for a list of all required application materials.

School Setting Occupational Therapy

School setting occupational therapists focus on helping students succeed in their school environment. A school setting OT [PDF, 2.1 MB] may work with a student on fine motor skills such as writing and even help them organize their workspace in the classroom.

To enter this area of specialization, you must have your degree in OT and apply for AOTA’s Specialty Certification in School Systems (SCSS, SCSS-A).  As part of your application, you must be able to show that you’ve been practicing as an OT for a minimum of 5 years and that you’re licensed by and in good standing with an AOTA-recognized regulatory body. Contact AOTA for a list of all required application materials.

Mental Health Occupational Therapy

Mental health occupational therapists support children, youth, adults and elderly persons with severe or persistent mental illnesses. Therapists may use daily occupations such as cleaning, cooking, writing and more to enhance mental health and wellness.

Those who wish to specialize in this field must obtain their Board Certification in Mental Health (BCMH) from AOTA. To be eligible for this certification, you must have a professional degree in OT and be licensed by an AOTA-recognized regulatory body. Contact AOTA for a full list of required application materials.

Physical Rehabilitation in Occupational Therapy

Individuals who live with physical disabilities may face challenges that make it difficult for them to complete daily tasks such as completing chores, driving, and doing work independently.

Occupational therapists work closely with those who have physical impairments to help them return to their daily routines. Individuals may consider physical rehabilitation occupational therapy if they are recovering from an illness, injury or disability.

A master’s degree is required for OT practitioners in this field.

Driving and Community Mobility in Occupational Therapy

One aspect of independent living is to be able to have access to your community and feel engaged within it. Driving can play a role in this.

Occupational therapists can use their skills to help individuals get around their community safely. Such skills include evaluating an individual’s ability to operate a mobile vehicle and then determining modifications or equipment that will make driving and mobility safe and possible.

Environmental Modification in Occupational Therapy

To help a patient perform daily tasks to the best of their ability, occupational therapists may make modifications to that patient’s home or surrounding environment. This gives patients a chance to do more daily activities in a safe and comfortable manner. Occupational therapists will look at features in the home that may pose a safety hazard, such as loose pieces of furniture or exposed electrical cords and outlets.

Why Are Occupational Therapists Important?

Occupational therapists believe that all individuals should have and enjoy a productive and independent life, despite their age or physical ability.

In the years to come, occupational therapists will be in high demand. Between 2018 and 2028, employment of occupational therapists will grow by 18%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational therapists will play a key role in the supporting and treating patients across the autism spectrum, as well as those with chronic conditions such as diabetes.

Occupational therapists will continue to work in a variety of health care settings including hospitals, homes, nursing care facilities and schools.

Why Become an Occupational Therapist?

Working as an OT can be personally rewarding. Day in and out, you will use your expertise to help people across the lifespan become fully engaged in society. In addition to the rapid growth of jobs, occupational therapists make a median annual salary of $84,270, according to 2018 data from the bureau of Labor Statistics.

To enter the field of occupational therapy, you will need a professional degree in occupational therapy. An online doctorate in occupational therapy might be for you if you’re if looking to work while in school.

How Does Occupational Therapy Compare to Similar Careers?

Occupational therapy is often compared to other careers such as physical therapy, recreational therapy or nursing. While there are a few parallels between these career fields, there are some distinct differences.

Occupational Therapy Aide vs Assistant

The difference between an occupational therapist aide and assistant can be seen in educational requirements. Occupational therapist aides need a high school diploma to receive training for the job, whereas occupational therapy assistants need an associate degree from an accredited OT assistant program.

Occupational Therapy vs Physical Therapy

The difference between these two types of therapy is that occupational therapy focuses on the body’s ability to perform certain tasks, while physical therapy focuses on improving a person’s body movement.

Some people may think of occupational therapy and physical therapy as the same practice because they both help people recover from injury and illness.

Occupational Therapy Assistant vs Physical Therapy Assistant

An occupational therapy assistant (OTA) works with an occupational therapist (OT) and their client to help carry out the treatment plan that the OT has created after evaluating their client. They report back to the OT with how the treatment plan went so that the OT can make any necessary changes to the plan.

A physical therapy assistant (PTA) works with a patient to help them perform the treatment plan (i.e. physical exercises) that their physical therapist has given them.

Recreational Therapy vs Occupational Therapy

Recreational therapy uses recreation techniques such as arts & crafts, games, sports and more, to enhance an individual’s ability to engage in daily leisurely activities.

Both occupational and recreational therapy assist individuals who need assistance in recovering from illnesses, disabilities or injuries. However, occupational therapy focuses more on improving an individual’s ability to perform daily tasks, whereas recreational therapy puts emphasis on daily leisure.

Occupational Therapy vs Nursing

At the moment, there is a high demand for both nursing and occupational therapy careers.

What makes the two different from each other is that they both have their own licensing and certification process.

Nurses must take the NCLEX-RN (National Council Leisure Examination) from the National Council of State Boards in Nursing (NCSBN). And occupational therapists must take the National Board Certification of Occupational Therapists Occupational Therapist Registered exam (NBCOT-OTR).

Occupational Therapy Resources

If you want to learn more about the OT profession and what it takes to become certified, visit any of the sites below:

American Occupational Therapy Association

National Board of Certification in Occupational Therapy

AOTA’s NBCOT Exam Prep