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What do occupational therapists do? A closer look

Aug 21, 2023
8 min Read
Occupational therapy students in hands on learning classroom

Occupational therapy plays a crucial role in healthcare, helping individuals regain their independence and improve their quality of life. You’ve probably heard the term before, but you may not understand what occupational therapists do in a typical day.

We enlisted the expert insight of Dr. Angela Patterson, seasoned occupational therapist and associate professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy program at Creighton University, to help break down every angle of the occupational therapist job description. Keep reading to learn more about this meaningful role.

What is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapy (OT) is a healthcare profession focused on helping people overcome challenges and engage in the activities or occupations that are meaningful to them. 

“Occupational therapy is more than a healthcare profession — it is a vocation to work with people, groups and populations on meaningful occupations that will improve their quality of life and belonging,” Dr. Patterson explains. “‘Occupations’ are activities that people do to occupy their time and bring meaning and purpose to their lives.”

The primary goal of OT is to assist individuals in achieving their independence, promoting their health and enhancing their overall well-being. This involves rehabilitation interventions in the following areas: activities of daily living, instrumental activities of daily living, health management, rest and sleep, education, work, play, leisure, and social participation.  

What do occupational therapists do?

“The role of an occupational therapist is dynamic — no two days are the same,” Dr. Patterson says. “OT intervention is tailored to the client and based on what they find meaningful in improving body, mind and spirit.”

Generally speaking, occupational therapists assess their clients’ abilities, identify areas of impairment or difficulty, and develop personalized treatment plans to address specific goals. 

Here are a few of the more common occupational therapist duties to expect:

  • Assessment: Conducting thorough assessments to evaluate clients’ physical, cognitive, psychosocial and environmental needs. These assessments help identify barriers to participation and inform intervention planning. 
  • Intervention: Designing and implementing individualized intervention strategies based on assessment findings. These may include skill-building activities, adaptive equipment recommendations, environmental modifications and therapeutic exercises to enhance independence and functional abilities. 
  • Rehabilitation: Assisting individuals recovering from injuries, surgeries or illnesses to regain functional abilities and reintegrate into their daily lives. 
  • Mental health support: Working with individuals experiencing mental health conditions, helping them develop coping strategies, improve emotional regulation and engage in meaningful activities that promote their recovery and overall well-being. 
  • Education and training: Teaching individuals, families and caregivers about adaptive techniques, assistive devices and strategies to facilitate independence and optimize functioning in daily activities. 
  • Advocacy: Promoting clients’ rights and inclusion, ensuring they have access to the resources and opportunities necessary for full participation in society. 

What kinds of patients do occupational therapists work with?

Occupational therapists work with a diverse range of patients across various settings. Some may specialize in a particular area, while others work with all populations, including:

  • Children and youth: working with children who have developmental delays, sensory processing disorders, learning disabilities or physical disabilities. Occupational therapists can help children build essential skills for self-care, play, social interaction and school performance. 
  • Adults: assisting individuals who have experienced injuries, strokes, neurological disorders or chronic conditions. OT can help adults improve functional abilities, promoting independence in activities of daily living (ADLs) and facilitating successful community integration. 
  • Elderly: playing a vital role in geriatric care, addressing age-related challenges and promoting healthy aging. Occupational therapists provide interventions that enhance mobility, prevent falls and maintain cognitive and physical abilities for senior citizens. 
  • Individuals with mental health conditions: supporting those dealing with mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Occupational therapists can help clients develop coping skills, manage stress and engage in activities that foster self-esteem and social connection. 

What conditions do occupational therapists treat?

“When everyday living becomes difficult, OTs problem solve with clients to create and restore function and productivity,” Dr. Patterson states. As such, occupational therapy can be used to treat a wide range of conditions, including but not limited to:

  • Physical disabilities: helping individuals suffering from things like spinal cord injuries, amputations, arthritis or traumatic brain injuries to regain strength, mobility and independence in their daily activities. 
  • Neurological disorders: working with individuals with conditions like multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease or cerebral palsy, focusing on improving motor skills, coordination and adaptive strategies. 
  • Developmental delays: supporting children with developmental delays or disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or sensory processing disorders. Occupational therapy can help kids develop essential skills for learning, self-care and social participation. 
  • Chronic conditions: assisting individuals managing chronic conditions such as diabetes, chronic pain or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by providing strategies they can use to maintain their independence, manage symptoms and enhance their overall well-being. 

Where do occupational therapists work?

“When a client has a barrier to function in their environment, an OT provides assessments and intervention to facilitate the client achieving maximal level of independence,” Dr. Patterson explains. “Thus, the client’s environment is the platform where the OT works.”

It’s clear that occupational therapy can be applied in many different scenarios, so it should come as no surprise that there are several job settings. Here are a few common places that occupational therapists provide services:

  • Hospitals and rehabilitation centers 
  • Schools 
  • Community-based programs 
  • Home care 

What skills do occupational therapists need?

Similar to any health-related practice, a lot of technical knowledge and skill is required to provide occupational therapy services for patients. There is a lot of medical, neurological and anatomical expertise required — much of which is covered in occupational therapy degree programs. But there are certain “soft skills” that are also crucial to excel in the field.

“Occupational therapists must build trust and rapport to work closely with clients,” Dr. Patterson explains. “They must apply empathy and intentionality throughout the therapy process to better collaborate with, advocate for, encourage, instruct and problem solve with the client.”

Most successful occupational therapists possess the following transferrable soft skills: 

  • Communication and interpersonal skills: excellent communication skills are necessary to establish rapport with clients, collaborate with other healthcare professionals, and educate individuals and their families. 
  • Analytical and problem-solving abilities: it’s important for occupational therapists to be skilled in conducting assessments, analyzing data and formulating effective treatment plans to address clients’ unique needs and challenges. 
  • Empathy and compassion: these are essential qualities that enable occupational therapists to connect with their clients on a deep level and provide holistic care. 
  • Adaptability: the ability to work with diverse populations and encounter a variety of conditions is essential. Being adaptable allows occupational therapists to modify interventions, strategies and treatment plans based on individual client needs. 
  • Creativity: creative thinking is often needed to develop engaging activities and interventions that motivate clients and promote progress towards their goals. 

How do you become an occupational therapist?

If the information above has you even more interested in pursuing this profession, you’re probably wondering what the process of becoming an occupational therapist looks like. Here is a high-level breakdown of the steps you’ll need to take:

  1. Acquire the required education: Most aspiring occupational therapists begin by earning a bachelor’s degree, ideally in a related field such as psychology, exercise science or biology.* Some go on to complete a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy, which is the minimum level of education required to enter the field. Many OTs choose to pursue a Doctor of Occupational Therapy degree to advance their research skills, pursue academia or gain additional specialized training in a diagnostic group or population. 
  2. Complete necessary fieldwork: As part of your coursework, you’ll need to undergo supervised fieldwork placements to gain hands-on experience and apply theoretical knowledge in a clinical setting. This training is built into an occupational therapy program — the specifics will vary based on the school. For example, Creighton OT students put their knowledge into practice through four Level I fieldwork placements, two Level II fieldwork placements and a 14-week Doctoral Capstone Experience. This fieldwork takes place across the nation and students also have the option to participate in international placements.  
  3. Obtain proper licensure: Upon earning your degree, you’ll need to become licensed before practicing as an occupational therapist. You can apply for a license within the state in which you intend on practicing after passing the national certification exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT)
  4. Pursue a specialization if you choose: If you’re interested in focusing on a particular niche, you may seek out a fellowship in your chosen area of practice. Creighton University offers three postgraduate fellowship programs that are approved by the American Occupational Therapy Association: pediatric, neurology and gerontology. 
  5. Continuing education: In order to maintain your credentials, you’ll need to commit to engaging in professional development and continuing education. This ensures that you’re staying up to date with the latest research, techniques and best practices in the field. 

*Creighton University’s entry-level Occupational Therapy Doctorate (OTD) program does not require candidates to have a bachelor’s, as long as they’ve completed 60 semester hours of prerequisite coursework.

Launch a rewarding career in occupational therapy

It’s obvious that occupational therapists play a pivotal role in helping individuals of all ages overcome challenges, regain independence and engage in meaningful activities that enrich their lives.

“Occupational therapists bring justice to diverse people, groups and populations in inclusive environments to ensure equity in restoring function to clients’ meaningful occupations,” Dr. Patterson says. “They are the glue that binds the client’s body, mind and spirit disrupted from illness, injury or disability.”

Now that you know more about what occupational therapists do and the significant impact they have on their clients’ overall quality of life, perhaps you’re ready to take the next step toward becoming one. Learn more about how Creighton University’s occupational therapy program stands out by exploring the Entry-level Doctor of Occupational Therapy page

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