What is Occupational Therapy?
Occupational therapy practitioners help clients participate in daily activities when the ability to do so has been compromised by illness, injury, or disability.
We believe that health is more than alleviating a diagnosis. It is being able to participate in life to your fullest potential. That's why we focus on helping you participate in the daily activities that you find meaningful.
This page is your complete introduction to occupational therapy practice.
What Can OT Help With?
The medical jargon used to describe the areas of your life OT can help with is the "activities of daily living." This simply refers to the basic building blocks of daily life. Here is the complete list of areas:
- Toileting and Toilet Hygiene
- Functional Mobility
- Personal Device Care
- Personal Hygiene and Grooming
- Sexual Activity
- Care of Others
- Care of Pets
- Child Rearing
- Communication Management
- Driving and Community Mobility
- Financial Management
- Health Management and Maintenance
- Home Establishment and Maintenance
- Meal Preparation and Clean Up
- Religious and Spiritual Activities and Expressions
- Safety Procedures and Emergency Responses
- Rest and Sleep
- Social Participation
What Does Occupational Therapy Treatment Entail?
An occupational therapist’s work varies from setting to setting, but the treatment process tend to follow a particular flow.
OT begins with an evaluation in which the therapist collects information on your history, health status, and what activities you are currently limited in. They use this information to layout a plan of care that involves specific goals and the treatment techniques they will use to achieve them.
Occupational Therapy Treatment
Subsequent treatments focus on some combination of providing physical, emotional, or cognitive interventions to help you achieve your goals. Therapists also consider whether modification of the environment/activity may help set you up for success.
Here are some examples of how Medicare (the gold standard in reimbursement) codes different treatments:
- Neuromuscular re-education
- Manual therapy techniques
- Therapeutic activities
- Development of cognitive skills
- Sensory integrative techniques
- Self-care/home management training
- Community/work reintegration training
- Wheelchair management
- Debridement of wounds
- Assistive technology assessments
- Development screening
- Brief emotional/behavioral assessments
Discharge From Occupational Therapy
Coming to the end of occupational therapy does not mean the road to recovery is over. It simply means that you no longer need the skilled oversight of a therapist to continue. At discharge, OTs often provide education to you and your caregiver about how you can continue therapy independently, for example, by providing a home exercise program. I also recommend requesting a summary of the treatment and your progress.
Where Do Occupational Therapists Work?
OTs work with individuals across the lifespan, from newborns to older adults, and address physical and mental health. The most common settings where occupational therapists work are as below.
To give you an idea of how OT practitioners are distributed in the approximately 150,000 jobs in the US, here are the percentages of according to the AOTA 2015 Salary and Workforce Survey. (9664 OT practitioners were surveyed.)
- Hospitals - 27%
- Long-term Care/Skilled Nursing Facilities - 19%
- Schools - 20%
- Outpatient clinics - 11%
- Home Health - 7%
- Academia - 6%
- Early Intervention - 5%
- Mental Health Settings - 2%
- Community - 2%
- Other - 1%
To learn more about OT jobs in your area, check out my occupational therapy jobs board.
What Specialties are Available to Occupational Therapists?
The scope of occupational therapy is very broad and encompasses many complex issues. Thus many practitioners benefit from receiving advanced certification in particular areas. Common areas of specialization include:
- Assistive Technology
- Seating and Mobility
- Aging in Place
- Brain Injury
- Hand Therapy
- Driver Rehabilitation
- Stroke Rehabilitation
- Low Vision Therapy
- Sensory Integration
The post “Where to Go with an OT Degree” gives you a more in-depth breakdown of the different areas and what it takes to obtain certification.
What Schooling Does an Occupational Therapy Practitioner Need to Practice?
In all states, there are two professional licenses that are available to occupational therapy practitioners: occupational therapist and certified occupational therapy assistant.
The current entry-level degree for an occupational therapist is a Masters of Science in occupational therapy. The credentials “MS OT/L or “OT/L” indicate this level of education
There are also a growing number of programs offering a doctorate in occupational therapy. The credential “OTD” indicates this level of education.
Prior to 2007, only a bachelor’s degree was needed to practice as an occupational therapist. Those who obtained their license before this were grandfathered into the licensing.
Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants
COTAs require an associate’s degree from a certified program. From there, they must pass a national exam to before practicing. Read here for a complete overview of their scope of practice.
Some OT departments also employ occupational therapy aides. These are non-licensed professionals who do not deliver OT treatments but instead help with daily operations of the department.
The History of OT
In the early 1900s, patients were languishing in hospitals and mental facilities for weeks, months and sometimes years. We now know that many of the treatments they were undergoing were ineffective.
In this time, there began a movement of social workers, nurses, and psychiatrists. They believed patients could take their healing into their own hands by engaging in activities versus lying in bed. This appeared to not only speed their recovery but also prepare them more fully for discharge from the hospital.
The official founding of the profession is considered to be March 15, 1917, when the National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy was founded in Clifton Springs, NY.
Over the next 100 years, robust science would back up the success occupational therapists had been observing. We are continuing to learn about the science of motivation, neuroplasticity, self-efficacy, sensory integration, etc. Our profession continues to evolve and incorporate cutting edge science and common sense to provide the best care.
Some of my favorite facts about OT history include:
- Occupational therapy was founded in 1917 by 3 women and 3 men—an equal gender division. This was 3 years before women had the right to vote in federal elections!
- George Barton, one of the founding fathers, envisioned the symbol of occupational therapy as the phoenix, a mythical bird that is reborn from its own ashes.
- Eleanor Clarke Slagle is considered the “mother of occupational therapy.” She served in elected offices of the Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy from 1917-1937. Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at her retirement reception.
- Like other health professions, occupational therapy saw rapid expansion following both world wars. To the right is a picture of the badge worn by occupational therapists during World War II.
I also love this quote abut our origins from the book "Occupational Therapy: The First 30 Years:"
Patients were not merely diseased organs or tissues to be seen through the lens of a microscope or the image of a radiograph. They were whole persons needing care beyond the acute stage of illness. Furthermore, occupational therapists argued, complex social, economics and biological reasons caused disease, not single microbes.
To learn more about OT history check out my blog post, 10 Amazing Moments in OT History.
What Research Supports an Occupational Therapist’s Work?
Occupational therapy is an personalized science. We strive to balance tailoring our care to individual needs and preferences with adhering to protocols that have solid evidence behind them.
One of the easiest ways to find out about the evidence supporting the occupational therapy resources you are receiving is to ask your occupational therapist.
There are several journals dedicated to sharing evidence about occupational therapy resources including:
- The American Journal of Occupational Therapy
- The Asian Journal of Occupational Therapists
- The Australian Occupational Therapy Journal
- The British Journal of Occupational Therapy
- The Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy
- The Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy
You can also find articles about the effectiveness of different OT techniques of Verywell.com, including:
Advocating for the Best Care
Occupational therapy is a partnership. Your participation is just as important as your therapist’s. Here are some resources for getting the most out of your experience.
Resources for Your First Occupational Therapy Visit
If you are seeing an occupational therapist for the first time, you probably have lots of questions before even arriving at the evaluation. Here are some resources to help you prepare.
Where Can I Learn More About Occupational Therapy?
This page is geared toward occupational therapy within the United States. But, occupational therapy is a globally strong profession. See the other resources below for more information about occupational therapy within your country:
- Argentina: Asociacion Argentina de Terapistas Ocupacionales
- Australia: Occupational Therapy Australia
- Austria: Ergotherapie Austria
- Bangladesh: Bangladesh Occupational Therapy Association
- Belgium: Nationale Belgische Federatie van de Ergotherapeuten
- Bulgaria: Association of Bulgarian Ergotherapists
- Canada: Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists
- Caribbean: Association of Caribbean Occupational Therapists
- Chile: Colegio de Terapeutas Ocupacionales de Chile
- Columbia: Colegio Colombiano de Terapia Ocupacional
- Croatia: Hrvatska udruga radnih terapeuta
- Czech Republic: Czech Association of Occupational Therapists
- Denmark: Danish Association of Occupational Therapists
- Estonia: Estonian Association of Occupational Therapists
- Finland: Suomen Toimintaterapeuttiliitto ry
- France: Association Nationale Francaise des Ergotherapeutes
- Germany: Deutscher Verband der Ergotherapeuten
- Greece: Hellenic Association of Ergotherapists
- Hong Kong: Hong Kong Occupational Therapy Association
- India: All India Occupational Therapists’ Association
- Iran: Iranian Occupational Therapy Association
- Ireland: Association of Occupational Therapists of Ireland
- Japan: Japanese Association of Occupational Therapists
- Jordan: The Jordanian Society for Occupational Therapy
- Kazakhstan: Kazakhstan Ergotherapy Association
- Korea: Korean Association of Occupational Therapists
- Luxembourg: Association Luxembourgeoise des Ergotherapeutes Diplomes
- Malawi: Occupational Therapy Association of Malawi
- Malaysia: The Malaysian Occupational Therapy Association
- Mexico: Asociacion de Profesionales en Terapia Ocupacional
- Netherlands: Ergotherapie Nederland
- New Zealand: Occupational Therapy New Zealand / Whakaora Ngangahau Aotearoa
- Norway: Norsk Ergoterapeutforbund
- Panama: Asociacion de Terapeutas Ocupacionales de Panama
- Portugal: Associação Portuguesa de Terapeutas Ocupacionais
- Romania: Professional Association of Occupational Therapists from Romania
- Singapore: Singapore Association of Occupational Therapists
- South Africa: Occupational Therapy Association of South Africa
- Spain: Asociacion Profesional Espanola de Terapeutas Ocupacionales
- Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka Society of Occupational Therapists
- Sweden: Occupational Therapists of Sweden
- Switzerland: ErgotherapeutInnen - Verband Schweiz
- Taiwan: Taiwan Occupational Therapy Association
- Trinidad and Tabago: Trinidad and Tobago Occupational Therapy Association
- United Kingdom: College of Occupational Therapists
- United States: American Occupational Therapy Association
Many other countries that have occupational therapy associations but do not have websites. See a more complete directory at the World Federation of Occupational Therapists website.