People who have an interest in helping others learn to perform the activities of everyday living will be excited to discover what occupational therapists do. These well-trained professionals provide essential treatment to people who are disabled, injured, ill or otherwise have difficulty performing daily activities.
What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?
When they begin working with a patient, occupational therapists ask numerous questions of the patient regarding the activities that are difficult to perform. Additionally, they conduct a review of the patient’s medical history, and it’s typical to observe the patient as they perform certain tasks. From this, the therapist is able to evaluate the needs and treatment that the patient requires. This involves identifying goals for each patient and planning the activities that will be used to prepare the patient to meet these goals.
Occupational therapists demonstrate exercises for their patients. These exercises may be designed to reduce pain, increase range of motion, improve balance and coordination or sharpen motor skills. Frequently, the occupational therapist works with the patient’s family, employer, colleagues, and caregivers so that these individuals understand how they can accommodate the patient’s needs. Therapists also may visit the home or workplace of the patient to evaluate how these spaces can be adapted to serve the patient.
The specialist may recommend assistive devices and train the patient in their use. Evaluations of the patient’s progress are made throughout the process. Similarly, occupational therapists may work with patients who have mental or emotional disabilities. This may mean that they help with things like budgeting, time management, household chores and using public transportation to help the patients develop coping skills.
What Is Occupational Therapy?
Occupational therapy is a form of medical treatment that helps people who have an injury, sickness or disability that makes it difficult for them to perform typical activities at home, work or school. Through occupational therapy, individuals can adapt to whatever their particular limitations may be so that they can do things like complete household chores, bathe and dress or participate in common activities. Through the use of assistive devices and alternative means of completing ordinary tasks, occupational therapy helps people to lead more independent lives.
How to Become an Occupational Therapist
Most people earn a master’s degree to become an occupational therapist. The best way to obtain this credential is through a degree program that’s accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education. Applicants for these programs are required to hold a bachelor’s degree with coursework in subjects like physiology and biology. Depending upon the program, applicants may be required to demonstrate volunteer experience in an occupational therapy setting.
Two to three years of full-time study typically are required to complete a master’s degree. These programs require a minimum number of weeks of fieldwork, which is closely supervised. Completion of a program prepares individuals to pass the required examination of the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.
Breakdown of Relevant Degrees
As touched on above, occupational therapy is a unique skillset that truly requires some professional know-how in order to carry out with efficacy and safety all at once. There are several degree options, however, that form a great foundation from which one can get closer to scoring a job in this field. The following are some of those preferred degree programs that will help to make anyone a viable candidate for this role.
Master’s of Occupational Therapy
The foremost degree that prepares one to become an occupational therapist today is the Master’s of Occupational Therapy. In this degree program, the student is certain to master all of the knowledge involved in applying the latest occupational therapy techniques and those most appropriate per the individual client and their needs. Some examples of the individual courses one can expect along this great educational path, beyond the core courses, include Foundations and Theory in Occupational Therapy, Clinical Reasoning and Documentation, Psychosocial Perspectives in Occupational Therapy Practice, and Therapeutic Modalities, among others.
Master’s of Biology
Biology, at its core, is the study of living organisms. A master’s degree in biology is another very valid way into occupational therapy work, as this degree teaches all about the inner-workings of the human body, its healing processes, how it reacts to injury, and more. Beyond the core course work required of all students, biology majors can expect a thorough battery of courses to include Principles and Techniques of Molecular Biology, Principles of Genetics, Epigenetics and Gene Regulation, The Neurobiology of Pain, and many, other, similarly-themed biology courses.
Master’s of Kinesiology
Kinesiology is the scientific study of bodily movement, mechanics, health, and well-being, and becoming a master of this particular science prepares one for a career in occupational therapy as well as numerous, other, health-based vocations. Most degrees of this kind are mixed disciplinary and interdisciplinary in nature and also feature numerous concentration directions such as exercise physiology and sports administration among others. Some examples of the kinds of coursework a student on this educational path will typically encounter include Research Methods in Kinesiology, Functional Anatomy, Sports Science, Motor Control, and Functional Biomechanics.
Master’s of Health Science
A master’s degree in health science, as its name suggests, is a degree that provides educational mastery over the science of human health and the many mechanisms that affect it. Like many other degree routes one may take in the pursuit of an occupational therapy job, this program also offers numerous specialization tracks. Regardless of such specialization choices along the way, students here can expect to encounter key courses such as Biostatistics, Environmental Health, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Clinical Investigation, and Social Factors in Health.
Master’s of Human Physiology
Finally, another, slightly less-common approach to securing an occupational therapy career is that achieved through the completion of a Master’s of Human Physiology. Physiology is the study of the functions and working mechanisms in a living body. Medical doctors, for example, are masters of physiology where it involves the human body. For those interested in pursuing this educational avenue, example courses to be expected will likely include Gross Human Anatomy, Pulmonary Pathophysiology, Cardiovascular Pathophysiology, Exercise Physiology, and Molecular Biology among others.
Occupational Therapy Certification, Licensing
No matter the individual degree path one takes to get ready for occupational therapy work, all occupational therapists and occupational therapist assistants are required to obtain an occupational therapy certification. This legal standard allows for a subsequent license to work in the field and applies to all 50 states across the US as well as in Puerto Rico and all US territories. Each state regulates the profession and makes sure all practicing in it are certified and licensed via a state regulatory board. A list of boards, by state, can be found at the American Occupational Therapy Association website.
The certification required to become licensed is strictly facilitated by NBCOT, or the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. NBCOT both works with pro occupational therapists to obtain and then maintain a legitimate certification. There is no other authorized provider of this service.
In preparation for the NBCOT occupational therapy certification, it’s highly recommended that all future testees enroll in and make full use of the organization’s NBCOT Exam Study Pack. The Study Pack includes a variety of activities and games with which to become fully prepared as well as an extensive battery of practice exam activities. In addition to these study materials, prospective testees can take part in the organization’s Study Badge system and other, great materials provided via the website. While other, outside organizations and educational facilities offer similar preparation opportunities, it’s best to utilize those directly from NBCOT, the actual testing authority for the industry.
For those seeking in-depth career statistics on the job of today’s occupational therapist, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is an authoritative and highly-recommended resource. Per the bureau’s findings, the ongoing demand rate for occupational therapists through 2029 is a very high 16-percent. This is much higher than the average growth rate found in most vocations.
The bureau also cites a very healthy median pay rate for occupational therapists of about $84,950 per year. Translated to an hourly rate, that’s about $40.84 per hour. Those interested in a state-by-state employment map can also find that at the bureau’s website. Per the official statistics, New York is the state where the most occupational therapists are employed. Behind New York and in descending order, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Florida are the next most numerous in employed occupational therapists.
Interestingly, however, the states with the most employed occupational therapists are not necessarily the same states in which these professionals receive the highest pay. Going by the numbers, the bureau ranks Nevada, California, New Jersey, Arizona, and District of Columbia as those in which occupational therapists tend to earn the highest wages. At the top of the list, Nevada’s occupational therapists see an hourly mean wage of about $50.70. On an annual basis, that amounts to about $105,450. These figures are periodically updated by the BLS based on research and were all updated last on July 6, 2020.
How Does an Occupational Therapist Differ From an Assistant Occupational Therapist?
Assistant occupational therapists are similar to occupational therapists in many ways. These professionals do much the same work, working hands-on with patients to recover and improve upon their personal health circumstances. Assistant occupational therapists are also required to be certified and licensed just like occupational therapists.
The primary difference between the two professions, however, lies in the degree of responsibility ultimately placed on them. Assistant occupational therapists typically work with and at the direction of an occupational therapist. The occupational therapist then decides the ultimate therapeutic goals and approach to those goals from patient to patient. They also work closely with the patient’s other medical doctors in the effort to maintain the highest possible degree of cumulative care. The assistant does not typically do these things but acts more of the supportive party, helping with the actual hands-on activities with patients.
There are also many other careers related and similar to that of the occupational therapist. Physical therapists provide a similar level of expertise and help those with various injuries to heal and recover their previous physical abilities. Likewise, nurse practitioners work hands-on with patients in a wide variety of ways to assure the maintenance and improvement of their current health. Recreational therapists, much like physical therapists and occupational therapists, work closely with patients to restore physical capabilities. For a comprehensive list of similar and/or related vocations, there is a helpful BLS webpage containing this information.
Relevant Professional Organizations
There are numerous professional organizations devoted to the industry of occupational therapy. The following represent some of those top, representative organizations and are highly recommended for anyone seeking more information on the subject.
As mentioned above, the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, or NBCOT for short, is the only authorized provider of professional certification in occupational therapy. This authoritative organization solely handles this responsibility and also acts as a general education source and industry-uniting representative for occupational therapy. Whether inquiring as a student, an educator, a regulator, or a member of the general public, this organization is available to provide assistance into all things occupational therapy.
AOTA, or the American Occupational Therapy Association, was established in 1917 and is a leading representative association for today’s occupational therapy field. Resources found at this organization’s website include help finding employment in the industry, links to advocacy and policy information, conferences, news, and more. AOTA also partners closely with NBCOT in a cumulative effort to provide a thorough arena of resources in occupational therapy. Anyone may inquire with AOTA.
Occupational therapists work in a rewarding field that enables them to improve the lives of their patients. Although a long academic period is required to enter the workplace, most therapists consider it a worthwhile experience. With an understanding of what an occupational therapist does, it’s possible for people to determine if this is the career path for them.