Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapists treat injured, ill, or disabled patients through the therapeutic use of everyday activities. They help these patients develop, recover, and improve the skills needed for daily living and working.

Interest Area: 
Helping
Average Yearly Pay: 
$66780
Education Needed: 
Graduate Degree
Employment: 
Growing Much Faster Than Average
Job Growth: 
26%
Job Prospects: 
Good

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Job Duties: 

Occupational therapists typically do the following:

  • Observe patients doing tasks, ask them questions, and review their medical history
  • Evaluate a patient's condition and needs
  • Develop a treatment plan for patients, laying out the types of activities and specific goals to be accomplished
  • Help people with various disabilities with different tasks, such as leading an autistic child in play activities
  • Demonstrate exercises—for example, joint stretches for arthritis relief—that can help relieve pain for people with chronic conditions
  • Evaluate a patient’s home or workplace and, based on the patient’s health needs, identify potential improvements, such as labeling kitchen cabinets for an older person with poor memory
  • Educate a patient’s family and employer about how to accommodate and care for the patient
  • Recommend special equipment, such as wheelchairs and eating aids, and instruct patients on how to use that equipment
  • Assess and record patients’ activities and progress for patient evaluations, for billing, and for reporting to physicians and other healthcare providers
  • Career Overview: 

    Occupational therapists treat injured, ill, or disabled patients through the therapeutic use of everyday activities. They help these patients develop, recover, and improve the skills needed for daily living and working.

    Duties

    Occupational therapists typically do the following:

    • Observe patients doing tasks, ask them questions, and review their medical history
    • Evaluate a patient's condition and needs
    • Develop a treatment plan for patients, laying out the types of activities and specific goals to be accomplished
    • Help people with various disabilities with different tasks, such as leading an autistic child in play activities
    • Demonstrate exercises—for example, joint stretches for arthritis relief—that can help relieve pain for people with chronic conditions
    • Evaluate a patient’s home or workplace and, based on the patient’s health needs, identify potential improvements, such as labeling kitchen cabinets for an older person with poor memory
    • Educate a patient’s family and employer about how to accommodate and care for the patient
    • Recommend special equipment, such as wheelchairs and eating aids, and instruct patients on how to use that equipment
    • Assess and record patients’ activities and progress for patient evaluations, for billing, and for reporting to physicians and other healthcare providers

    Patients with permanent disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, often need help performing daily tasks. Therapists show patients how to use appropriate adaptive equipment, such as leg braces, wheelchairs, and eating aids. These devices help patients perform a number of daily tasks, allowing them to function more independently.

    Some occupational therapists work with children in educational settings. They evaluate disabled children’s abilities, modify classroom equipment to accommodate children with certain disabilities, and help children participate in school activities.

    Some therapists provide early intervention therapy to infants and toddlers who have, or are at risk of having, developmental delays.

    Therapists who work with the elderly help their patients lead more independent and active lives. They assess patients’ abilities and environment and make recommendations. For example, therapists may identify potential fall hazards in a patient’s home and recommend their removal.

    In some cases, occupational therapists help patients create functional work environments. They evaluate the work space, plan work activities, and meet with the patient’s employer to collaborate on changes to the patient’s work environment or schedule.

    Occupational therapists also may work in mental health settings where they help patients who suffer from developmental disabilities, mental illness, or emotional problems. They help these patients cope with, and engage in, daily life by teaching skills such as time management, budgeting, using public transportation, and doing household chores. In addition, therapists may work with individuals who have problems with drug abuse, alcoholism, depression, or other disorders. They may also work with people who have been through a traumatic event.

    Some occupational therapists, such as those employed in hospitals, work as part of a healthcare team along with doctors, registered nurses, and other types of therapists. They may work with patients with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, or help rehabilitate a patient recovering from a hip replacement surgery. Occupational therapists also oversee the work of occupational therapy assistants and aides.

    Work Environment: 

    Occupational therapists held about 113,200 jobs in 2012. The industries that employed the most occupational therapists in 2012 were as follows: 

    Hospitals; state, local, and private 28%
    Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists, and audiologists 22
    Elementary and secondary schools; state, local, and private 12
    Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) 9
    Home health care services 9

    Therapists spend a lot of time on their feet while working with patients. They also may be required to lift and move patients or heavy equipment. Many work in multiple facilities and have to travel from one job to another.

    Work Schedules

    Most occupational therapists worked full time in 2012. About 1 out of 4 worked part time. They may work nights or weekends, as needed, to accommodate patients’ schedules.

    Education and Training: 

    Occupational therapists need at least a master’s degree in occupational therapy; some therapists have a doctoral degree. Occupational therapists also must be licensed or registered.

    Education

    Most occupational therapists enter the occupation with a master’s degree in occupational therapy. In March 2013, there were 149 occupational therapy programs accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education, part of the American Occupational Therapy Association; 145 are master’s degree programs and the remaining 4 are doctoral degree programs.

    Admission to graduate programs in occupational therapy generally requires a bachelor’s degree and specific coursework, including biology and physiology. Many programs also require applicants to have volunteered or worked in an occupational therapy setting.

    Master’s programs generally take 2 to 3 years to complete; doctoral programs take about 3 years. Some schools offer a dual-degree program in which the student earns a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in 5 years. Part-time programs that offer courses on nights and weekends are also available.

    Both master’s and doctoral programs require at least 24 weeks of supervised fieldwork, in which prospective occupational therapists gain clinical work experience.

    Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

    All states require occupational therapists to pass the national examination administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapists (NBCOT). To sit for the NBCOT exam, candidates must have earned a degree from an accredited educational program and completed all fieldwork requirements.

    Therapists must pass the NBCOT exam to use the title “Occupational Therapist Registered” (OTR). They must also take continuing education classes to maintain certification.

    The American Occupational Therapy Association also offers a number of certifications for therapists who want to demonstrate their advanced level of knowledge in a specialty area, such as pediatrics, mental health, or low vision.

    Important Qualities

    Communication skills. Occupational therapists must be able to listen attentively to what patients tell them and be able to explain what they want their patients to do.

    Compassion. Occupational therapists are usually drawn to the profession by a desire to help people and improve the daily lives of others.

    Flexibility. Occupational therapists must be flexible when treating patients. Because not every type of therapy will work for each patient, therapists may need to be creative when determining the treatment plans and adaptive devices that best suit each patient’s needs.

    Interpersonal skills. Because occupational therapists spend their time teaching and explaining therapies to patients, they should be able to earn the trust and respect of their patients.

    Patience. Dealing with injuries, illnesses, and disabilities is frustrating for many people. Occupational therapists should be patient in order to provide quality care to the people they serve.

    Writing skills. When communicating in writing with other members of the patient’s medical team, occupational therapists must be able to explain clearly the treatment plan for the patient and any progress made by the patient.

    Pay: 

    The median annual wage for occupational therapists was $75,400 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $50,500, and the top 10 percent earned more than $107,070.

    In May 2012, the median annual wages for occupational therapists in the top five industries in which these therapists worked were as follows:

    Nursing care facilities (skilled nursing facilities) $83,430
    Home health care services 82,310
    Offices of physical, occupational and speech therapists,
    and audiologists
    77,430
    Hospitals; state, local, and private 75,140
    Elementary and secondary schools; state, local, and private 66,610

    Most occupational therapists worked full time in 2012. About 1 out of 4 worked part time. They may work nights or weekends, as needed, to accommodate patients’ schedules.

    Job Outlook: 

    Employment of occupational therapists is projected to grow 29 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Occupational therapy 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 the loss of a limb.

    The need for occupational therapists is expected to increase as the large baby-boom generation ages and people remain active later in life. Occupational therapists can help senior citizens maintain their independence by recommending home modifications and strategies that make daily activities easier. Therapists also play a large role in the treatment of many conditions and ailments commonly associated with aging, such as arthritis and stroke. They will also be needed in a variety of healthcare settings to act as part of a healthcare team in treating patients with chronic conditions, such as diabetes. Patients will continue to seek noninvasive outpatient treatment for long-term disabilities and illnesses, either in their homes or in residential care environments.

    In addition, medical advances now enable more patients with critical problems such as birth defects or limb amputations to survive. These patients may need occupational therapy to perform a variety of daily tasks.

    Demand for occupational therapy services will also stem from patients with autism spectrum disorder. As an increasing number of states require insurance companies to cover autism-related services, more therapists will be needed in schools to assist children with autism in improving their social skills and accomplishing a variety of daily tasks.

    Demand for occupational therapy services is related to the ability of patients to pay, either directly or through health insurance. The number of individuals who have access to occupational therapy services may increase because of federal health insurance reform. Both rehabilitation and habilitation services are listed among the essential health benefits that insurers will need to cover once reforms are implemented.

    Job Prospects

    Job opportunities should be good for licensed occupational therapists in all settings, particularly in acute hospital, rehabilitation, and orthopedic settings, because the elderly receive most of their treatment in these settings. Occupational therapists with specialized knowledge in a treatment area also will have better job prospects.

    For More Information: 

    For more information about occupational therapists, visit

    American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc.

    For more information about the Occupational Therapist Registered certification exam, visit

    National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy

    For information regarding the requirements to practice as an occupational therapist in schools, contact state occupational therapy regulatory agencies.