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Patients’ Patriots: Occupational Therapists Fight To Make Their Patients Independent

  • Article by:Health Career Center

Most Baby Boomers want to live independently in their homes for as long as they can.

Car crashes cause 4.4 million injuries every year.

More than a million 6-19 year-olds suffer serious sports injuries annually.

Those are major reasons why the U.S. government predicts a nearly 27% increase in the demand for occupational therapists between now and 2024.

“ As we have more [occupational therapists] coming into the field we have more places where they can go,” says Amy Lamb OTD, OT/L, FAOTA president of the American Occupational Therapy Association. “That allows us to meet the needs of [patients] wherever we’re needed and we are working to build that capacity.”

Some of the most attractive reasons for choosing OT as a career are a median annual salary of over $80,000, a 40-hour workweek and the chance to have an enormous effect on the lives of patients.

“When [former Illinois] Senator [Mark] Kirk arrived at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago he had experienced a complex and comprehensive stroke – significantly limiting his level of independence,” says Piper Hansen OTD, OTR/L, BCPR the clinical practice leader at RIC.  “And when he left here after a few months he was able to accomplish his goal, which was walking up the steps of the U.S. Capitol. To see how the rehab process positively impacted his life at such a successful level was really great.”

If you want to spend your working life having that kind of effect, start hitting the books.  Your academic preparation begins with a bachelor’s degree loaded with coursework in biology and physiology.   Before applying to an accredited master’s degree program in occupational therapy, you’ll probably need to volunteer in a setting that provides OT services. Your master’s will take two to three years to complete and include at least six months of supervised fieldwork in a clinical OT environment.  The degree and fieldwork will qualify you for the final step:  taking and passing the licensing exam that confers the “Occupational Therapist, Registered” (OTR) title.  You’ll need that to practice anywhere in the U.S.

The work of occupational therapists differ from that of physical therapists in that PTs primarily help patients recover from physical injuries or disease; OTs focus on assisting patients to perform practical day-to-day tasks.  OTs assess how their patients’ physical, cognitive or development disabilities affect emotions, motor skills or behavior.   OTs then institute appropriate therapies as well as modifications to a patient’s environment.

You can find occupational therapists in private practice, schools, and nursing facilities, but the biggest percentage work for hospitals.

‘In a hospital, you get to collaborate with a large staff of occupational therapists [with different specialties],” says the RIC’s Hansen.  “In a smaller clinic, you can get ‘siloed’ and may not have as much interaction with other medical professionals.  Also, in a hospital, you have a chance to see your patients try things for the first time, show them the possibilities, and support them as they reach treatment goals and personal milestones.”

Hansen explains that during a typical day a hospital-based occupational therapist will develop evidence-based treatment plans for his or her patients, gauge progress on those plans through standardized assessment, and, if the plans aren’t working, change them to maximize outcomes. The majority of an OT’s day, however, is spending time one-on-one with six to 12 patients.

“I still do clinical practice,” says Lamb, the AOTA president.  “And what keeps me passionate is knowing that ours is one of the only professions that finds what is meaningful to a patient and focuses on that.  If a teen girl has had an amputation and wants to be able to put on her makeup, I’m going to work with her on that.”

Lamb says the key prerequisites for students considering a career in occupational therapy is the ability to adapt to constantly-changing patient needs, the willingness to constantly advocate for their patients, and  “having the heart to help people.”    She also urged newly licensed OTs to look for employment at hospitals with high-quality metrics and a rehabilitation department that supports occupational-based therapeutic methods.

“Once you’ve worked in a hospital,” she says, “you have a real solid base.”