What is an occupational therapist?
An occupational therapist is a healthcare professional whose primary role is to enable people to participate in meaningful and purposeful activities despite physical, mental, or cognitive limitations. They work with individuals who struggle with everyday tasks due to illness, injury, developmental disorders, or psychological conditions.
Their role is essential in enhancing the quality of life for their clients. By assessing a patient’s physical and cognitive abilities and understanding their lifestyle and goals, these professionals create personalized treatment plans that help individuals perform day-to-day tasks more independently and satisfactorily.
Duties and responsibilities
Occupational therapists are responsible for evaluating patients’ conditions and needs and developing a personalized treatment plan that helps them build or regain the skills necessary for day-to-day activities. They may provide adaptive strategies, modifications, or equipment to support a patient’s functional independence.
They also guide and monitor the patient throughout the therapy process, adjusting the treatment plan as necessary based on the patient’s progress and feedback. Additionally, these therapists educate family members and caregivers on how to support the individual in achieving their functional goals.
Occupational therapists work in a variety of healthcare and community settings, including hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, nursing homes, and private practices. They may also provide services in clients’ homes. Their work often involves physical activity, such as helping patients perform exercises, and they may need to lift or move patients.
They typically work as part of a team, including physical therapists, speech and language therapists, nurses, and doctors. Despite the challenging nature of their work, these professionals often find their jobs highly satisfying as they help people improve their quality of life.
Typical work hours
Most occupational therapists work a full-time, Monday through Friday schedule, but hours may vary depending on the setting and the needs of the patients. Those working in hospitals or healthcare facilities may have to work evenings or weekends, while those in school settings may have more traditional work hours that align with the school day. Some therapists also offer early morning or evening appointments to accommodate their clients’ schedules.
How to become an occupational therapist
This career guide section outlines the process of becoming an occupational therapist – from gaining practical experience to earning the necessary certifications and licenses.
Step 1: Acquire a bachelor’s degree
The first step is getting an undergraduate degree. While there isn’t a specific major required, it’s recommended that students pursue a degree in a related field such as biology, psychology, sociology, or anatomy. This foundational understanding will be helpful when pursuing further education in occupational therapy.
Step 2: Obtain a master’s degree
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, the next step is to pursue a master’s in occupational therapy. These programs are typically two years long and provide students with theoretical knowledge and practical experience in the field. Students will learn about human anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and neuroscience, among other related topics.
Step 3: Complete the required fieldwork
Part of the master’s degree program will include required fieldwork, which enables students to gain hands-on practical experience in a supervised setting. It usually spans a variety of settings, including hospitals, clinics, and community centers, allowing students to gain a broad understanding of the role.
Step 4: Pass the exam
After completing school, the next step is to pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam. This is the primary certification for occupational therapists in the United States and is necessary for licensing in most states. The test covers a range of topics learned during the degree program, and it’s a crucial step toward starting this career.
Step 5: Get licensure
The final step is to obtain a license to practice. Licensing requirements may vary from state to state, but they generally require proof of education from an accredited program and successful completion of the NBCOT exam. Some states may additionally require criminal background checks and other screening processes.
Step 6: Continue professional development
Once you are a licensed occupational therapist, it’s essential to continue learning and staying up to date with current practices and advancements in the field. Options include continuing education courses, workshops, and conferences. To maintain NBCOT certification, they must recertify every three years, which involves completing professional development units.
How much do occupational therapists make?
Occupational therapist salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Specialization within this role, such as pediatric or geriatric occupational therapy, can also affect earning potential.
Highest paying industries
- Home Health Care Services: $91,000
- Nursing Care Facilities $89,000
- Management of Companies and Enterprises: $87,000
- Specialty Hospitals: $85,000
- General Medical and Surgical Hospitals: $83,000
Highest paying states
- Nevada: $105,000
- California: $98,000
- New Jersey: $96,000
- Arizona: $94,000
- Connecticut: $92,000
Types of occupational therapists
Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for occupational therapists. This section is designed to help aspiring and new therapists find their niche in this broad profession.
Pediatric occupational therapist
Working with children who have developmental issues, disabilities, or injuries, this niche of occupational therapy focuses on helping the younger generation. Activities conducted aim toward improving cognitive, physical, and motor skills. The goal is to enhance children’s independence and self-esteem.
Geriatric occupational therapist
This specialization caters to the needs of older adults. People often face mobility issues, cognitive decline, and difficulties performing daily tasks as they age. Professionals in this role work toward improving the quality of life for older adults by helping them maintain their independence safely.
Mental health occupational therapist
These specialists focus on clients struggling with mental health problems. The therapist aims to help clients build skills necessary for independent living and social interaction, contributing to their overall well-being. Therapy might involve handling stress effectively or managing time and personal responsibilities.
Physical rehabilitation occupational therapist
Concentrating on patients with physical disabilities or injuries, the role involves a lot of physical assistance. The primary aim is to help clients regain or improve the functionality of their body movements. Therapists in this field often work collaboratively with physicians, physical therapists, and other healthcare professionals.
Hand therapy occupational therapist
Hand therapy is a specialized area within occupational therapy focused on treating orthopedic-based upper-extremity conditions. Pros in this category work to restore the functionality of the hand and arm after injury, surgery, or onset of medical conditions like arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome.
Top skills for occupational therapists
This career guide section outlines the skills and abilities that will help you find success as an occupational therapist.
Building trust and rapport with patients is critical. Often, these professionals work with individuals experiencing frustration or upset due to their physical or mental health challenges. Being empathetic, patient, and able to gain a patient’s confidence encourages more effective treatment progress.
Clear conveyance of ideas, thoughts, and treatment plans to patients, their families, and other healthcare professionals is key in this role – including verbal and written communication. A clear comprehension of the patient’s needs and conveying those to all involved parties ensures that the patient will receive the most appropriate care.
Each patient’s unique circumstances require individualized therapeutic solutions. The ability to think outside the box to adapt treatment strategies to specific situations, using tools or techniques in innovative ways, contributes greatly to successful patient outcomes.
Therapists regularly encounter complex challenges that require careful consideration and analysis of different angles or aspects. The most effective professionals consistently identify underlying issues and craft innovative solutions.
Occupational therapy is a physically demanding profession, requiring energy to perform throughout the working day. Maintaining a healthy physical condition helps prevent fatigue and injury.
Knowledge of human anatomy and physiology
A detailed understanding of the human body, how it works, and how illness or injury affects bodily function is essential. This knowledge allows therapists to devise effective therapeutic interventions and better understand patient conditions.
Occupational therapist career path options
This profession holds many possibilities for growth and advancement.
One avenue for progression is to move into a specialist role, utilizing your skills and expertise to focus on a unique demographic such as pediatrics, geriatrics, or individuals with developmental delays. Your acquired skills and passion for helping your patients can lead you toward a specific area of interest. For example, you may choose to focus exclusively on children with learning difficulties or adults with ongoing motor skill problems. This career path offers the opportunity to become deeply knowledgeable in a specific area and significantly impact individuals’ lives.
As you gain professional experience, management and leadership roles are possible. Opportunities for leadership within the world of occupational therapy include becoming a department head or manager, overseeing the work of a team of therapists, and directing the continual effectiveness and improvement of therapeutic services.
Academic and research roles
Beyond clinical practice, several occupational therapists opt to move into academia or research. Experienced practitioners may teach at universities, shaping the next generation of therapists. A research-focused career might involve conducting studies to develop innovative treatment methods, contributing to the growth and evolution of this field.
For those seeking autonomy in their professional life, establishing a private practice is a viable option. This path offers the advantage of setting your work hours and choosing your clients. However, it also entails managing a business, from marketing to accounting. This option is an opportunity to deeply personalize your career path, tailoring it to fit your interests and lifestyle.
Similar job titles
Position trends and outlook for occupational therapists
Modern occupational therapy is quickly evolving due to the incorporation of technology into healthcare roles. Specifically, telehealth has changed how this profession provides care by offering remote services to patients. The use of technology also aids in the tracking of patient progress, better organization of patient files, and more efficient diagnosis and treatment planning.
The aging global population is another trend significantly affecting the demand for professionals in rehabilitative roles. With more aging individuals needing assistance to maintain their independence, this creates a vast expanse of opportunities within this field, especially in the home healthcare setting. As life expectancy continues to increase, so will the demand for these services.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of occupational therapists is projected to grow 25 percent through 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. Therapists will continue to be an important part of treatment for people with various illnesses and disabilities, such as Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral palsy, autism, or limb loss.
Occupational therapist career tips
Being technically savvy is advantageous for an occupational therapist. Acquiring knowledge about assistive technology devices for mobility, communication, and daily living can equip you to help clients better. Likewise, understanding electronic health records systems can give you an edge in the medical field.
Develop observational skills
An invaluable aspect of the profession is the ability to observe a client’s behavior, environment, and physical characteristics. Your attentive observation can result in a more accurate diagnosis and better treatment plans.
Beyond your professional training, continuous learning is an important aspect of the job. It helps you remain relevant in the rapidly evolving therapy and healthcare field. Here are some areas where you can pursue additional knowledge:
- Pediatric occupational therapy
- Occupational therapy for the elderly
- Advanced physical rehabilitation methods
- Therapeutic use of technology
Emphasize preventive care
Many clients seek therapy because of preventable conditions. Educating them on the importance of a healthy lifestyle and proactive self-care can minimize the recurrence of debilitating conditions and improve their overall quality of life.
Build a professional network
Networking with other professionals could open doors to new opportunities and collaborations. Through insightful interactions, you can exchange information, learn from other practitioners, and even expand your clientele. Joining relevant professional associations and networks is a good way to start. These include:
- American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)
- World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT)
Pursue relevant certifications
Gaining additional certifications can make you more attractive to potential employers. Certifications offer evidence of your proficiency in specific therapy areas, demonstrating your commitment to the job and continuing education. Consider earning credentials like the Certified Hand Therapist (CHT) or Board Certification in Pediatrics (BCP) from the American Occupational Therapy Association.
Where the occupational therapist jobs are
- Kindred Healthcare
- Select Medical
- Encompass Health
- Genesis Rehab Services
- New York
Top job sites
- American Occupational Therapy Association
What are the education requirements for an occupational therapist?
The path to becoming an occupational therapist entails earning a master’s degree, and some therapists opt for a doctoral degree. These programs require applicants to have earned a bachelor’s degree and taken certain prerequisite courses, typically including biology, psychology, and human growth and development. After earning their degree, they must pass an exam to become licensed.
Is there a demand for occupational therapists?
The demand for occupational therapists is indeed high. The aging population and the need for occupational therapy services for individuals with various disabilities and conditions, such as autism, drive it. Employment will continue to increase for the foreseeable future.
What skills does an occupational therapist need?
Anyone pursuing this profession must have strong interpersonal skills as they will work directly with people facing daily challenges. A strong understanding of the physical and psychological aspects of illness and injury is also important. Patience, creativity, and the ability to motivate others are other key traits needed in this role. Occupational therapists should also have strong problem-solving skills to adapt treatment plans to each individual’s needs.
What are the different specialties an occupational therapist can pursue?
There are several specializations within this field, including pediatrics, geriatrics, mental health, physical rehabilitation, and disability. They can choose to work in certain settings, such as homes, schools, or hospitals, each requiring unique skills and knowledge. Some therapists may also choose to specialize in a specific treatment approach, such as sensory integration therapy or hand rehabilitation.
What does a typical day look like for an occupational therapist?
A typical day may include evaluating patients’ needs, establishing a treatment plan, and administering therapy – helping patients with daily tasks, work-related activities, or recovering physical abilities. Documentation of progress and communication with other healthcare professionals may also be a part of their daily tasks. The work schedule usually includes full-time hours during the weekdays, though some therapists might work evenings or weekends depending on their practice setting.
What makes a great occupational therapist?
Great therapists are patient and understanding and can inspire their patients to reach their full potential. This job can also be physically demanding, so physical stamina is important. Most importantly, therapists must be committed to the welfare of their patients, working tirelessly to enhance their quality of life.
How do occupational therapists collaborate with other healthcare professionals?
Occupational therapists are usually part of a healthcare team – working with doctors, nurses, social workers, speech therapists, and physical therapists to provide a comprehensive treatment plan for their patients. This interdisciplinary work requires excellent communication because everyone involved in a patient’s care must remain aware of progress and changes in the treatment plan.
What is the difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy?
Physical therapy focuses on improving a patient’s physical abilities through exercises, manual therapy, and treatments like electrotherapy and heat. The goal is to alleviate pain and improve or restore physical function and fitness levels. On the other hand, occupational therapy is a more holistic practice. Therapists in this discipline consider all aspects of a patient’s life and work to improve their ability to perform daily activities.