Occupational Therapist (OT) Career Guide

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Occupational Therapist (OT)

What Is a Occupational Therapist?

Occupational Therapy is a branch of rehabilitative medicine that uses interventions to help patients with a variety of physical and cognitive impairments. It focuses on developing and maintaining the skills needed for daily activities at home, work, and school, leading to a more independent life.

Occupational therapists (OTs) and their assistants (OTAs) work collaboratively in various settings. While OTs are primarily responsible for assessing patients and developing treatment plans, OTAs provide direct therapy under the supervision of OTs. They may assist in implementing therapeutic activities, teaching patients to use equipment such as wheelchairs, leg braces, or eating aids, and supporting daily tasks such as dressing and eating.

Both OTs and OTAs work with patients in mental health settings, helping those with developmental or mental disabilities. OTAs support therapists in guiding these individuals in tasks like using public transportation or managing time and budgets.

In school settings, OTAs often assist OTs in helping students with developmental or physical disabilities to achieve their potential. Their role is crucial in facilitating the practical aspects of therapy sessions and follow-ups.

The opportunities and job outlook for both occupational therapy and occupational therapy assistants are growing each year.

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What Does a Occupational Therapist Do?

Occupational therapy is a hands-on healthcare career that assists patients with disabilities, both cognitive and physical, in developing and maintaining the skills they need for day-to-day activities. OTs and OTAs work together in teaching new ways of performing activities of daily living such as eating, personal hygiene, or creating routines that promote independence.

A day in the life of an occupational therapy practitioner can vary depending on the setting and patient needs. Common responsibilities include:

  • Reviewing patients’ medical histories and helping in planning rehabilitation goals.
  • Helping patients perform daily tasks such as eating and dressing.
  • Demonstrating the use of specialized equipment and assisting in patient exercises.
  • Making recommendations about changes that would benefit a patient’s living and work environments.
  • Assessing and recording patients' progress.
  • Educating families and caregivers about how to accommodate and help patients.

How Do You Become a Occupational Therapist?

For OTs:

For OTAs:

  • Complete an associate degree in occupational therapy assistance.
  • Pass the NBCOT exam for assistants.

FAQs About Occupational Therapists

What skills does a Occupational Therapist need?

Successful occupational therapy practitioners need strong problem-solving and organizational skills. Patience, flexibility, and strong communication are key, as they work with a healthcare team that includes patients, families, and employers. Being observant, optimistic, and creative is also essential for both OTs and OTAs, as each patient’s needs are different.

Work Settings For a Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapy practitioners work in a variety of settings. Most commonly, they assist patients in hospitals who are recovering from surgery. Additionally, they can be found in schools working with children who have developmental or physical disabilities or in nursing homes assisting the elderly or disabled seniors.

Common Cases a Occupational Therapist Encounters

Occupational therapy practitioners encounter patients of all ages with physical, sensory, or cognitive problems. While OTs focus on the overall therapeutic plan, OTAs help patients use new adaptive equipment and teach practical skills for daily life activities. This may include helping those with disabilities or recovering from surgery with new adaptive equipment such as eating aids, walkers, or wheelchairs and also recommending assistive devices that better suit the needs of the patient.

How To Advance Your Career as a Occupational Therapist?

Once you become certified as an Occupational Therapist or OT assistant, you may find yourself wanting to grow and expand, and the best way to do this is through specializing in one area. There are many different areas in which you could become specifically certified and trained.

Here are just a few:

Education Requirements & Helpful Certifications for a Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants follow different educational paths but both play vital roles in patient care.

Occupational Therapists:

Degree Requirements: A master's degree in occupational therapy from an accredited program is typically required. This involves first obtaining a bachelor's degree, preferably in a related field such as biology, psychology, or health science. The master's program, lasting two to three years, encompasses extensive coursework and fieldwork.

Licensure: Graduates must pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam to earn the OTR (Occupational Therapist, Registered) credential. They must also become licensed in the states where they wish to practice. Check out our helpful state-by-state guide to OT Licensure for more information.

Experience and Additional Certifications: Gaining work experience is a key step for those seeking further specialization in occupational therapy. Occupational therapists can opt for additional certifications in areas like pediatric occupational therapy, physical rehabilitation, mental health, school systems, and gerontology. These certifications, offered by organizations like the Board for Certification of Pediatric Occupational Therapists (BCPOT) and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), often require a combination of work experience, continuing education, and additional examinations.

Occupational Therapy Assistants:

Degree Requirements: Occupational therapy assistants typically need an associate degree from an accredited occupational therapy assistant program. These programs include both academic instruction and hands-on experience.

Licensure: After completing their education, OTAs must pass the NBCOT exam for assistants to become certified. Similar to OTs, OTAs must obtain licensure in the states where they intend to work.

Career Advancement: OTAs can enhance their careers by gaining experience, pursuing additional coursework, and obtaining specialized certifications. Certifications for OTAs might focus on specific areas of therapy or advanced therapeutic techniques.

Both occupational therapists and their assistants are required to maintain their credentials through ongoing professional development and adherence to professional standards. This ensures they stay current with the latest practices and advancements in the field of occupational therapy.

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