What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

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Get answers to the question, “What does an occupational therapist do?” and understand how an OT compares to similar roles. Details include skills needed to be an occupational therapist, job outlook, and how to qualify to work in occupational therapy. 

[Featured Image] Occupational therapist in a suit and tie meets with a client.

An occupational therapist (OT) supports people with injuries, disabilities, illnesses, or pain to be able to do their everyday tasks such as going to work or school, looking after themselves, and moving around. As an occupational therapist, you will work with patients to adapt their environments to their needs and make changes to their routines to develop new skills or find new, easier ways of doing things. 

This guide will discuss the differences between an occupational therapist, physical therapist, recreational therapist, and occupational therapist assistant. You'll also discover more about what an OT does, the skills and education needed to be an OT, where you might work, and how to get started in this field.

What is an occupational therapist?

An occupational therapist is a specially trained professional that helps people recover, develop, or improve everyday living skills. As an OT, you will work with patients in various settings, from hospitals to schools to home health services. You'll support them in making changes in their everyday lives to function better without pain or discomfort or to perform a task previously hampered by a health condition. 

The term ‘occupational’ can be misleading because it's easy to assume an occupational therapist supports people primarily in the workplace. This isn’t the case, as an OT can help people of all ages in various settings. 

Occupational therapist vs. physical therapist

Occupational therapists often work closely with physical therapists, but the two are distinctly different roles. Physical therapists support people to manage physical pain and improve movement, whereas an occupational therapist looks to improve functions associated with the pain or physical impairment. This could be through adapting equipment or teaching patients new methods of doing things. 

Occupational therapist vs. recreational therapist

Another occupation that is commonly confused with the work of an occupational therapist is a recreational therapist. A recreational therapist supports patients through the use of treatment programs, helping them to adapt due to the limitations of their illness or disability, as an OT does. Still, treatments are based on recreational activities such as arts and crafts, dance, and sports. It’s possible that a patient may be seeing an occupational therapist and a recreational therapist simultaneously. 

Occupational therapist vs. occupational therapy assistant

Occupational therapy assistants work under the supervision of an occupational therapist. Assistants help OTs by supporting therapy, setting up equipment, and working directly with patients by teaching them how to use equipment, directing exercises, and recording patient progress. 

What does an occupational therapist do?

An occupational therapist’s scope is vast. You can work with adults in an employment setting, supporting them by adapting their work environment to continue to perform their role following an illness or accident. You can also work with patients who have been impacted by a mental illness or severe physical conditions such as a stroke and need to adapt their movements, processes, and homes to accommodate their needs. 

As an OT, you can also work with young people in schools and care settings to support children who need help managing tasks like handwriting or certain behaviors. 

Typical duties and roles

Day-to-day duties vary according to the patient, but generally, as an occupational therapist, you will cover the following:

  • Review a patient's medical history and assess their need for support 

  • Evaluate a patient's home, workplace, and community to make necessary adaptations 

  • Define the patient's need for assistive devices, such as adaptable seating, ramps, and wheelchairs, and train in their use 

  • Support patients to find ways to undertake everyday tasks that have become difficult or are no longer possible, such as dressing, driving, and cooking

  • Teach patients to use equipment selected for their support

  • Demonstrate exercises and techniques to patients to support their movement and independence 

  • Work closely with health professionals such as nurses, physical therapists, and other professionals, including teachers, caregivers, and social workers to decide on the best care and process 

  • Develop a treatment plan with defined goals and clear stages 

  • Offer education for a patient’s family, key workers, employer, and school

  • Assess the progress of a patient to determine future interventions and update other health professionals 

Skills

Occupational therapists possess a wide range of job-specific and transferable skills that make them suitable for the role. Some of the essential skills for you to cultivate include:

  • Communication

  • Empathy 

  • Patience

  • Time management

  • Critical thinking

  • Adaptability

While you can likely learn most skills, it takes a certain type of person to build trust with patients and show compassion in all circumstances, making patients feel valued and supported. 

Work environment

An occupational therapist's work environment varies considerably. People receiving occupational therapy can be from all walks of life, and having treatment for multiple reasons. Most OTs juggle their time between the office and working directly with patients. The settings for seeing patients may include hospitals, health clinics, workplaces, schools, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, home care, prisons, or anywhere a patient needs support. 

Usually, work is full-time, but part-time positions are available. Occupational therapists need a certain level of fitness because they spend a lot of time on their feet and move patients and adjust heavy equipment. 

Salary

The average annual salary for occupational therapists is $85,570 as of May 2021, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) [1]. Your salary will vary based on your location, experience, who you work for, and job responsibilities. The BLS reports an annual salary range of $60,680 to $123,840 for occupational therapists.

Career outlook

The job outlook for an occupational therapist is excellent, with employment expected to increase by 17 percent between 2020 and 2030 [2]. This is higher than average for all occupations in the US. 

The need for occupational therapists is unlikely to cease, given that people require OT services as they age, and there is a current trend to stay active in later life. More and more people are searching for treatment to make their lives easier to manage, whether due to disabilities, chronic illness, or conditions such as a stroke. Occupational therapists will also have a place in schools for students with disabilities and autism spectrum disorder to improve everyday functioning. 

How do you become an occupational therapist?

There is a set path laid out for you to follow and complete, including the correct education, certification, and licensure, to become an occupational therapist. Experience in the field is desirable, even in a voluntary capacity. You'll also gain experience as part of your occupational therapist training. 

Education

To qualify as an occupational therapist, you must have a master's degree and, in some cases, a doctoral degree accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE). To gain acceptance into a master's degree in an occupational therapy program, you must already have a bachelor's degree, preferably in a health-related field. This might include biology, physiology, anatomy, or a similar field. 

Some courses may ask for experience as part of the application for study, and you can gain further experience in supervised fieldwork as part of the master's program, totaling 24 weeks. Doctoral programs also require 24 weeks of fieldwork and a 16-week capstone experience. 

Typically it takes two to three years to complete a master's degree, but part-time study options are also available. 

Read more: A Guide to Online Master's Degrees

Certification and licensure

Upon completing a master's or a doctorate, you must obtain a license to become registered as an occupational therapist. To gain a license, you must pass a national certification exam accredited by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). To maintain certification each year, occupational therapists must take professional development classes. 

Next steps

To help you decide if being an OT is the right career path for you, consider volunteering at a hospital, school, or other care facilities under the direction of an occupational therapist. You can also seek an entry-level position as an OT aide, which generally requires a high school diploma or equivalent and provides on-the-job training. 

If you're interested in pursuing a career as an occupational therapist, get started by researching online or in-person bachelor's, master's, or doctoral programs, depending on where you are in your educational journey. Learning some basics relating to health and the human body is a good start, so consider a course such as Anatomy Specialization offered by the University of Michigan on Coursera. 

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Article sources

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Therapists,  https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm#tab-5.” Accessed May 18, 2022. 

2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Therapists,  https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm#tab-6.” Accessed May 18, 2022.

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