What Does it Mean to Study Occupational Therapy?
According to the American Occupational Therapy Association, occupational therapy is defined as "skilled treatment that helps individuals achieve independence in all facets of their lives." Occupational therapy provides injured and disabled people with the life skills they need to live as independently as possible. Occupational therapy differs from physical therapy in that the latter is generally focused on major muscle groups and activities like walking and standing. Occupational therapy is more holistic and covers a broader variety of physical and psychological concerns.
Occupational therapists, assistants, and aides assist and instruct patients as they work to learn or relearn basic skills. Therapists use a wide variety of tools, equipment, and activities to teach patients to become more independent. The occupational therapist is usually responsible for creating a treatment plan for each patient, and the assistants and aides help carry it out.
Occupational therapy is available for people of all ages, with a variety of needs. A developmentally delayed child may practice activities that will strengthen his physical and mental development. A stroke survivor may require occupational therapy to help her improve hand-eye coordination, or to regain balance. The family of an Alzheimer's sufferer may meet with an occupational therapist to learn how to help him participate as fully as possible in family activities.
Occupational therapy occurs in a variety of settings, but most often takes place in hospitals, where the staff works with a wide variety of patients. Occupational therapy also occurs in mental health facilities, nursing homes, and home health care organizations.
Occupational therapists and their assistants must be licensed. To qualify for licensure, occupational therapist assistants must hold an associate degree from an accredited occupational therapy program. Occupational therapists must hold a master's degree from an accredited school. Occupational therapist aides are usually required to have only a high school diploma, though some career training can improve their job possibilities.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), occupational therapists, assistants, and aides can expect job growth to be faster than average. The elderly population is most often in need of occupational therapy services, so as the aging population grows, so will jobs in occupational therapy. In particular, occupational therapist assistants and aides may see an increase in job opportunities as the primary therapists delegate more duties to them.
Types of Occupational Therapy Degrees
Entry-level occupational therapy assistant careers often require no more than an associate degree, while advanced positions require a master's degree or higher. Online health and medical degree programs in occupational therapy are primarily available at the certificate level, for occupational therapy aides. However, more online master's programs are being introduced for students who have completed their clinical requirements in an on-campus bachelor's degree program.
Occupational Therapy Aide Training
In the past, occupational therapy aides were hired straight out of high school, but as the career becomes more popular, the job applicants with formal training have the upper hand. Distance learning programs in occupational therapy teach you the basics of the profession and how to assist your colleagues with clerical tasks, setting up equipment and preparing necessary materials.
An associate degree in occupational therapy qualifies you for an entry-level career as an occupational therapist assistant. This degree includes general education courses such as English and mathematics, as well as courses specific to occupational therapy. Students are usually required to complete an internship or a certain amount of fieldwork in order to graduate from the degree program.
You must hold a high school diploma to enter an associate degree program. Associate degrees typically take two years to complete and are offered at technical and community colleges (and increasingly online). Graduates should be prepared to take the national exam required for licensure as an occupational therapist assistant.
In years past, the bachelor's degree in occupational therapy was the basic prerequisite for licensure as an occupational therapist. In 2007, however, the standard changed; today, students are required to earn a master's degree or higher in order to qualify for a license or a career as an occupational therapist.
Because of this change, many universities are no longer offering bachelor's degree programs in occupational therapy. Instead, many either offer a pre-occupational therapy curriculum, or a combined bachelor's and master's degree program. The latter typically takes five years to complete. Many students opt for this combined degree because it often requires less time than a bachelor's degree and Master's degree earned separately.
The first four years of a combined degree program usually earns the student a bachelor's degree. For occupational therapy students, this degree is often in occupational science or health science. However, this is no longer sufficient for licensure. Students must complete the fifth year to earn their master's degree in occupational therapy to qualify.
What Can You Do With a College Degree in Occupational Therapy?
Occupational Therapist Aide
Occupational therapist aides work with occupational therapists, assisting clients with physical, mental, emotional, and developmental disabilities. Together, they help clients develop (or relearn) the basic skills and activities necessary for improving their quality of life. An occupational therapist aide's duties vary depending on the occupational therapist they work with and the environment in which they work.
Occupational therapist aides are often responsible for gathering the materials and equipment that are used by the therapist and clients. Administrative work is a large component of the job. They may schedule appointments, answer phones, and order supplies.
An occupational therapist aide can work in any location that an occupational therapist does. They are found most frequently in hospitals, but may also work in nursing homes, private practices, and home health care agencies. Aides work with a variety of age groups.
There are no specific educational requirements for an occupational therapist aide, though many employers prefer at least a high school diploma. Much of the education needed by an occupational therapist aide is learned while on the job, but as competition for this career grows keener, applicants with career training may have an advantage.
Good communication skills are important for occupational therapist aides. Because they often work with clients going through difficult periods in their lives, aides must be sensitive and patient. Occupational therapy is a hands-on profession, so aides must have the strength and stamina to lift and guide patients through activities and exercises.
Occupational Therapist Assistant
Occupational therapist assistants, like aides, work together with the occupational therapist to rehabilitate clients with mental, physical, developmental, and emotional disabilities. They attempt to improve their clients' lives by teaching them life skills and activities designed to help them live more independently.
Assistants must help the occupational therapist keep all records current and accurate. They follow the treatment plan designed by the therapist for the client and report the client's progress to the therapist.
Occupational therapist assistants have a strong desire to help people with disabilities. They should be sensitive and caring. They work under the supervision of an occupational therapist, but must be responsible enough to work independently.
Occupational therapist assistants work most often in hospitals, but may be found anywhere an occupational therapist is, including nursing homes, schools, and doctor's offices. They are licensed professionals, regulated by a state licensing board. Occupational therapist assistants must have a degree from an accredited occupational therapy school, usually an associate degree. They must also pass a national examination registering them as Certified Occupational Therapist Assistants.
Occupational therapists work with physically, mentally, emotionally, and developmentally disabled clients. Depending on the client's needs, they may teach life skills, work-related activities, assist with basic motor skills, or help improve cognitive skills. The goal of an occupational therapist is to enhance their clients' quality of life and allow them to be as independent as possible.
Occupational therapists use adaptive equipment, games, and activities to teach skills to their clients. For example, a child that is having trouble with coordination may play catch with the occupational therapist. A woman in a wheelchair may work with an occupational therapist to learn how to dress herself, or how to move from her chair to the bed.
Occupational therapists are found in a variety of settings. In school systems, an occupational therapist may help adjust the school environment to allow a child with a physical disability to participate normally. In mental health settings, the occupational therapist may teach living skills such as budgeting, shopping, and home care.
Nursing homes employ occupational therapists to assist their residents in the use of adaptive equipment, which simplifies daily living skills to allow for more independent living. Hospitals are the largest employer of occupational therapists.
In addition to assisting clients, occupational therapists are responsible for some administrative work. They must keep clients' records accurate and complete, noting treatment plans and progress. They may work with other health care professionals to develop treatments plans for clients, and are often responsible for supervising assistants and aides.
Occupational therapists are responsible, caring individuals with a strong desire to see clients succeed. They enjoy working with people from all backgrounds and walks of life. They are creative and enjoy a career that allows them to do many different activities during the day.
A master's degree or higher is required to earn licensure and legally practice as an occupational therapist. All pre-professional occupational therapy degree programs require fieldwork or an internship to be completed before graduation. Occupational therapists must be licensed by the state in which they practice. Licensing requirements vary by state, but most require graduation from an accredited occupational therapy program and successful completion of a national examination.
Medical and Health Services Managers
Medical and health services managers plan, administer, and supervise the delivery of healthcare services. They work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, doctor's offices, nursing homes, and home health care organizations. They may manage an entire facility or a department within a facility.
Occupational therapists with experience may advance to a career in health services management. An occupational therapist in a hospital setting may advance to become the manager of the occupational therapy division. In a nursing home, s/he may advance to manage the entire facility. Education in healthcare management may be required for these positions, but experience is often sufficient.
In large facilities, a medical or health services manager creates and maintains policies and procedures. They may create and manage budgets and supervise and evaluate employees. In smaller facilities, such as nursing homes or small practices, they may be responsible for accounts payable and receivable, admissions, and employee training.
Employment opportunities in medical and health services management are expected to grow faster than average in upcoming years. Candidates possessing healthcare experience as well as skills in management will have the best possibilities for careers in this field.
Occupational Therapy Certification, Licensure, and Associations
Occupational therapists and occupational therapist assistants are both required to earn and maintain licensure in the state in which they practice.
Occupational therapist assistants must graduate from an accredited occupational therapy program, usually earning an associate degree. They must also pass a national examination given by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. When these requirements are met, occupational therapist assistants are given the title "Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant."
Occupational therapists usually are required to complete an accredited occupational therapy program that leads to a master's degree or higher. Occupational therapists must also pass a national examination. Upon successful completion of all requirements, the occupational therapist is considered an OTR, or Occupational Therapist Registered.
Requirements for earning a license vary from state to state, so it is important to check with the state licensing board to determine the exact requirements of a particular state.
After obtaining licensure, occupational therapists and occupational therapist assistants are required to maintain it. Every three years they must complete a minimum of 36 professional development hours. These professional development hours are typically earned by participating in activities approved by the state licensing boards. These activities may involve participating in local professional organizations or attending continuing education courses.
Other Associations and Certification Bodies
- American Art Therapy Association
- National Board for Certification in Occupation Therapy
- American Occupational Therapy Association
- National Organization on Disability
- American Occupational Therapy Foundation
- National Rehabilitation Association
- American Society of Hand Therapists