Career Guide: Occupational Therapist

  • Occupational therapists perform intervention to help patients work toward their goals.
    Occupational therapists perform intervention to help patients work toward their goals.

    Career Guide: Occupational Therapist

    Making a difference in people's lives can be immensely fulfilling. There are several paths you can take to achieve this: You can become a nurse, a doctor or even an occupational therapist. Occupational therapy can be a meaningful career path for those who are passionate about helping people and improving their lives.

    Read on to learn more about becoming an occupational therapist:

    What do occupational therapists do?
    The World Federation of Occupational Therapists defines occupational therapy as "a client-centered health profession concerned with promoting health and well-being through occupation. The primary goal of occupational therapy is to enable people to participate in the activities of everyday life." These everyday activities — whether they involve work or play — are what occupational therapists call occupations.

    Occupational therapists are skilled providers of occupational therapy services. They use their health care knowledge to treat disabled, ill or injured patients and help them recover, improve and maintain their skills so they can go on with their regular activities. Occupational therapists understand not only the medical and physical aspects of a disability, illness or injury but also the psychological and social factors that come with it.

    An occupational therapist will first assess a patient's condition by reviewing their medical history, asking them questions, observing them in their daily activities and conducting interviews with their family and other caregivers. The therapist then develops a treatment plan with specific goals that a patient must achieve. Next, the occupational therapist performs intervention to help a patient work toward their goals. Intervention includes teaching a patient new techniques or exercises and providing them with specialized equipment to do their tasks. Finally, the therapist monitors a patient's progress to ensure their goals are met and identify any improvements or changes needed.

    Occupational therapists can be employed in a wide variety of settings, including clinics, companies, government agencies, homes, hospitals, nursing care facilities, rehabilitation centers and schools. They can also work as consultants or educators and have their own private practice. Occupational therapists work with all age groups and can be part of a team of doctors, nurses and other therapists.

    How do you become an occupational therapist?
    Occupational therapists are required to obtain at least a master's degree in occupational therapy. Others choose to pursue a Ph.D. for further qualification in the field. A master's degree program takes around two or three years to complete while a doctoral degree can take three and a half years. Both graduate programs enable students to gain clinical work experience through a required minimum of 24 weeks of supervised fieldwork. Doctoral programs require an additional 16 weeks of capstone experience.

    Applicants to graduate school programs in occupational therapy must have an undergraduate degree. Prospective students should acquire the necessary science prerequisite courses, such as biology and physiology. Previous work or volunteer experience in an occupational therapy setting may also be required.

    After completing their degree and fieldwork, occupational therapists must be licensed to practice their profession. They should pass a national licensing exam to be registered occupational therapists. Other occupational therapists opt to specialize in other areas such as low vision, mental health or pediatrics through board and specialty certifications.

    The American Occupational Therapy Association has a list of resources for those considering a career in occupational therapy, including FAQs and stories from current students and practitioners.

    What skills are important for occupational therapists to have?
    Aside from the requisite medical and health care skills, occupational therapists must also be good communicators. Communication is key when telling patients what to do and explaining the treatment and intervention plan to families and caregivers. Occupational therapists should also be flexible and identify the treatment and intervention that best suits a patient's condition.

    Occupational therapy is a highly physical job requiring therapists to be constantly mobile to assist, lift or move patients as well as their equipment. Occupational therapists may work in different homes and facilities, so they should be amenable to travel. They should also be willing to work nights and weekends depending on their patients' schedules.

    Most of all, occupational therapists must have compassion toward their patients. Patience and sensitivity are important in providing excellent health care.

    Career outlook for occupational therapists
    Occupational therapists are expected to have a 21 percent growth in jobs between 2016 and 2026, a rate much faster than the average for other occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In terms of pay, the BLS reports that the median annual wage for occupational therapists in May 2016 was $81,910.

    Occupational therapists should expect a favorable career outlook in the coming years. The aging baby boomer generation and the continuous rise in the number of people staying active as they age are good drivers of employment for occupational therapists. The BLS also notes the increasing need for occupational therapists as patients prefer non-invasive treatment in a residential care setting or in their homes for long-term illnesses and disabilities.

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