Most people take for granted the ability to perform everyday tasks. Yet people who are severely injured or very ill often can’t do these seemingly simple things, like dressing and feeding themselves. Occupational therapists help sick and injured patients develop or redevelop the skills they need to function in their daily lives, to work and to meet goals that range from thriving socially to learning or relearning to drive a car. These healthcare professionals work in hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, doctors’ offices, physical and occupational therapy offices, nursing homes, schools and home health services.
Occupational therapists’ goal is to use everyday activities as therapy to help patients with a wide range of disabilities expand their skills and abilities they will need to live and work as independently as possible. A number of job duties contribute to their success in achieving this goal. Occupational therapists must observe and assess patients’ strengths and their needs. They must create the treatment plan that they will use to help the patient. Occupational therapists assist patients in a number of different activities, ranging from engaging in social activities to using computers. Limited mobility and pain often play a role in patients’ disabilities, so occupational therapists teach them stretches and other exercises to relieve their pain and help with mobility. As healthcare professionals, occupational therapists must keep records on patients’ progress. They may also assess the patient’s home or work environment and suggest equipment or methods that could help the patient function better.
To embark on this career, candidates must earn a graduate degree in occupational therapy. The Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education, a division of the American Occupational Therapy Association, currently accredits more than 150 occupational therapy master’s degree and doctoral degree programs. Most master’s degree programs in occupational therapy take two to three years of study to complete, but some accelerated programs allow students to earn a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in occupational therapy in as little as five years. During the course of their education, occupational therapy students will gain hands-on experience through fieldwork and internship opportunities and study subjects such as:
- Medical conditions
- Assistive technology
- Concepts and methods of caring for patients
In addition to earning an advanced degree from an accredited school, aspiring occupational therapists must obtain a state license to earn the title Occupational Therapist Registered, according to the BLS. Passing the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapists’ exam is necessary for attaining a license. Ambitious professionals can also seek certification in specialty areas from the American Occupational Therapy Association.
Occupational therapists earn a median annual salary of $75,400, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). In certain work environments, like nursing homes and home health services, earning potential is even higher. Occupational therapists also enjoy a strong job outlook. The BLS anticipates a 29 percent increase in the number of jobs in this profession over a 10 year period, compared to just 11 percent job growth expected for all professions. The combination of the high salary potential and the speed of expected job growth led U.S. News & World Report to rank occupational therapist ninth on its list of Best Health Care Jobs and 14 th on the list of the 100 Best Jobs overall.
For people with a great deal of patience and compassion and who enjoy the science of health care as well as the chance to help people live more functional lives, occupational therapy is a rewarding career choice.