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How to Become an Occupational Therapist in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Benefits of becoming an occupational therapist

Occupational therapy has a long history dating all the way back to Ancient Greece. It’s a patient-centric treatment approach in which practitioners use their extensive knowledge of biology, neurology, and holism to rehabilitate and enhance the lives of clients with a wide range of medical diagnoses.

Occupational therapists work with children and adults in a variety of settings, supporting the work of physicians and clinicians in practical ways. For example, they might work with children who have disabilities in educational settings, in elder care facilities helping seniors use adaptive equipment, at mental health clinics coaching patients on healthy routines, or helping individuals who have been involved in car accidents regain their independence.

The role is incredibly rewarding for people who feel gratified and nourished by enriching the lives of others. You need to have endless mental toughness in addition to physical strength and an impeccable bedside manner to excel in the role, but it offers excellent job prospects and a lifelong career with plenty of opportunities for progression. Occupational therapists must attend a graduate program, pass the certification exam, and obtain licensure to practice in all states.

Examples of OT roles

Let’s take a look at some of the roles occupational therapists assume, and then delve deeper into some of the most crucial ways they assist their patients:

  • Guiding individuals whose mental and physical abilities have changed through the process of returning to work by making adaptations to the workplace environment, how they do their job, or helping them change career
  • Helping people who have had motor vehicle or workplace accidents work out what’s needed to function optimally in day to day life
  • Assisting clients in acquiring equipment such as home adaptation devices and wheelchairs so they can return home after a medical event that changes their ability to perform physical tasks
  • Providing help to individuals in outpatient settings with conditions such as bipolar and schizophrenia so they can live as independently as possible as part of a community or at home alone
  • Helping individuals who have been admitted to hospital with conditions such as a brain injury or stroke to identify cognitive function levels and help them manage recovery
  • Working with children who have physical or mental differences to help them thrive during the educational process  

Occupational therapists might work in private practice, home care, schools, nursing homes, rehabilitation clinics, care facilities, hospitals, and clinics. Their main aims are to help patients re-learn or find new ways of performing daily tasks, develop new skills and regain lost skills, adapt environments to suit clients better, and source equipment and teach patients how to use it. 

The ways health care professionals in this role help patients are largely centered on the following key areas:

Modification

Occupational therapists show their clients new ways to perform tasks and learn gross and fine motor skills that are conducive to that individual’s mental and physical abilities. This doesn’t just include tasks that have utility for practical reasons, but also includes helping them with leisure pursuits as well. This usually involves offering advice about various tools and alternative methods clients can use to reach their goals.

Skills

As people get older, daily tasks such as getting dressed can become more challenging than they used to be. Occupational therapists are trained to help patients find creative ways of reversing or working around the difficulties.

For example, with getting dressed and undressed, there might be physical and psychological reasons to explain why the person is struggling. An OT advises the patient on exercises they can do to improve cognition, flexibility, and dexterity. Improved motor function, strength, and flexibility could see that patient regaining some independence and experiencing renewed vigor for life!   

Aids and adaptation

Occupational therapists are advocates for people with disabilities, helping them source tools and equipment that assist them with activities such as mobility, dressing, eating, and more.  

They visit patients’ homes, workplaces, and educational settings to offer guidance and assistance with adapting these environments to enhance clients’ independence and wellbeing. Some examples of conditions you might help with as an OT include:

  • When people reach old age, tasks such as reaching can become much harder. A licensed occupational therapist can help the individual by teaching them exercises that can help or providing a tool such as an extended grabber to make the patient’s life easier.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition that affects millions of Americans. Inflammation causes considerable pain in the joints, which swell up, making it challenging for sufferers to perform simple actions like gripping and grabbing. An OT helps people by finding tools to modify the home so people with arthritis can perform these tasks with ease.
  • Hip replacement surgery is one of the most common elective surgeries in the United States, but it can make life harder for people who have the procedure unless accommodations are made. Occupational therapy professionals help patients adapt their homes by finding tools such as grab rails or walk in baths or showers. 

Independence

When someone suffers a life-changing accident or illness, they don’t lose the desire to live as independently as possible. In fact, for many people who go through serious trauma, being confident with daily tasks is a top priority. Losing physical and mental capabilities can inspire deep feelings of shame and inadequacy that no-one should have to live with in modern society.

Occupational therapy services teach or re-teach people skills of independent living such as shopping, cleaning, cooking, and budgeting.  

Accessibility

Clients who have disabilities are often faced with considerable challenges when it comes to accessibility in the home and out in the world. Society is generally built for people who are able-bodied, which can severely impact on these individuals’ experience of day to day life.

For example, someone who’s in a wheelchair is at a major risk for becoming socially isolated unless provisions are made to accommodate that person. We all have the basic human right of being able to connect with others, and when this is impaired; it can lead to serious health problems.

An OT can help people in wheelchairs practice and learn how to use public transport effectively so they can handle obstacles and setbacks they might face with confidence. They could also help that person find an accessible vehicle to use, or connect them with a charity that offers free transportation.  

Finding employment

People who have disabilities are rarely fully incapacitated, whether the condition been present since birth or resulted from an accident. For example, someone who has cognitive impairment but is otherwise physically fit is perfectly capable of working, but they might need the workplace to make accommodations to meet their needs. Likewise, someone with no psychological difficulties but a physical disability has plenty to offer the workforce.

An occupational therapist will work with an individual to determine their interests and find a suitable educational or vocational course. They’ll offer guidance and strategies to help the client get the most out of learning, in addition to liaising with the school to ensure they understand the individual’s needs.

When they finish learning, the OT works closely with their client and workplace management to ensure both get the most out of the work placement.  

What do occupational therapists enjoy most about their role?

If you’re interested in landing a caring role within the health care industry, there’s a lot to be said for working as an occupational therapist. These are some of the reasons why OTs love their jobs:

Fulfillment: In this capacity, you work with individuals who are in-need of guidance from someone who fully understands and empathizes with their situation. Not only that, but they need to trust the person to advocate for them when they’re at their most vulnerable. You could turn someone’s life around by helping them regain independence and fully participate with society. There are few professions that provide such an excellent opportunity to enrich the lives of others.

Career prospects: Occupational therapists are in-demand, and the role is set to grow over the next decade. As such, salaries are high and there are plenty of options for variety with regards to location and setting. 

Flexibility: It’s similar to nursing in that there are often part-time occupational therapy jobs, in addition to full-time vacancies. This means you can perform these hugely fulfilling duties but still maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Stability: While you might need to renew your license or take a small pay cut if you decide to change state, there are generally plenty of opportunities throughout the entire United States.

Occupational therapy salary

Occupational therapy is a lucrative career path for anyone interested in working as a holistic care practitioner. According to the Bureau for Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for people in this role is $87,480, although this varies between states and cities. The top-paying locations for OTs are Nevada, California, Arizona, New Jersey, and Washington D.C., while some of the top-paying cities include Modesto, CA, Laredo, TX, and Sioux City, IA.   

Steps to becoming an occupational therapist

Occupational therapists work in a broad range of medical settings and help people with an array of diagnoses. As such, they need to have extensive knowledge of human anatomy, biology, physics, psychology, rehabilitation, and motivational techniques. It’s a demanding job that requires hard and soft skills, which means there’s plenty to learn before getting into the role. 

Read on to find out how to become an occupational therapist, and discover the best schools and courses for OTs. 

How to become an OT

In this role, you’re expected to perform a variety of tasks, from caregiving duties to high-level reporting. Below is an explanation of how prospective occupational therapists can get into a job in most states:

  1. Firstly, you’ll need to get a four-year bachelor’s degree. While some graduate courses don’t require that you study a particular field, the competitive occupational therapy school you want to apply for expects you to have a qualification in a relevant subject. The American Occupational Therapy Association states that degrees in sociology, biomechanics anthropology, therapeutic media, physiology, anatomy, and psychology give students the foundational knowledge required. With a bachelor’s degree alone, you could become a certified occupational therapy assistant or occupational therapy aide.
  2. Next, you’ll need to complete a two-year master’s degree OT program. This includes a mixture of classroom and fieldwork, much like a nursing degree, to prepare you for the role. Fieldwork might take place at a school, private clinic, rehabilitation facility, senior care home, or hospital. Level one fieldwork doesn’t have a set number of hours, but level two fieldwork standards require a minimum of 24 weeks of full-time practice.    

What training do occupational therapists need?

Currently, occupation therapists must be educated to at-least master’s degree level. However, the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education has suggested a mandate for making a doctorate level degree the minimum requirement. You’ll need a bachelor’s degree, and there are some extracurricular activities you can take part in to boost your chances of getting accepted to a top occupational therapy degree program, such as:

Best graduate degree schools for occupational therapy

According to U.S. News & World Report, the following schools perform best based for occupational therapy students on a survey of academics at United States universities: 

  1. Boston University
  2. University of Southern California
  3. University of Illinois–Chicago
  4. University of Pittsburgh
  5. Washington University in St. Louis
  6. Thomas Jefferson University
  7. Colorado State University

Best bachelor degree courses for occupational therapists

Some of the undergraduate degree courses that provide the best foundation for a career in occupational therapy include:

  • Anatomy
  • Psychology
  • Business 
  • Biology
  • Kinesiology
  • Sociology
  • Education

Skills needed to be an occupational therapist

A career in occupational therapy isn’t for the faint-hearted. You’ll need to have a huge heart, but also the mental and physical strength to help people who depend on you. Let’s take a look at the duties occupational therapists perform and the personality traits of the individuals who excel in the role.

Occupational therapist job description?

Occupational therapists work with people who have an array of physical and mental health conditions. People with permanent disabilities such as cerebral palsy and autism sometimes need help performing daily tasks, and OTs offer support and show clients how to use adaptive devices.

A pediatric occupational therapist works with children in educational settings, evaluating the needs of children with disabilities and making accommodations in the school environment where necessary. They might also step in to help toddlers and infants who are at risk of or have development disorders. 

Another major occupational therapist job role is working with people who have incurred injuries as a result of accidents or aging, helping them re-learn skills and adapt their homes to promote wellness and independence.  

Occupational therapist duties and responsibilities

The scope of occupational therapy is enormous, here’s a non-exhaustive list of the roles and responsibilities people in the job perform day to day:

  • Taking a holistic approach to each patient’s needs and situation
  • Review medical history and conduct interviews to determine needs
  • Identify each client’s personal goals and priorities
  • Plan and implement treatment plans
  • Review the effectiveness of treatment plans and make amendments as required
  • Establish realistic outcomes and communicate them positively to clients
  • Help people with various physical and mental challenges perform various tasks
  • Liaise with health care professionals to maximize the effectiveness of care outcomes
  • Maintain immaculate electronic and written records
  • Demonstrate physical exercises
  • Write care plans and reports
  • Evaluate the various environments your patients need to move through and make plans and find tools to enhance accessibility
  • Make referrals where necessary
  • Educate family members and employers in the best ways to help clients
  • Recommend specialty equipment and teach patients how to use them
  • Organize support groups and rehab sessions
  • Train students and supervise occupational therapist assistant practitioners

Traits necessary for a career in occupational therapy

Occupational therapists are master plate spinners with a broad spectrum of talents and personality traits. In addition to being medical professionals, OTs have capacity as counselors, coaches, physical therapist, advocates, caregivers, managers, and teachers. Below are the most important skills for individuals who are interested in a career in occupational therapy:

People skills: The most important skill OTs use is the ability to put people at ease and feel confident enough about their abilities to make progress. In this role, you’ll work with people from all backgrounds with a variety of life-changing conditions. While many clients are happy to work with someone who has their best interests at hearts, others might find the process undignified, embarrassing, or patronizing.

Considering the challenges they’re facing and your role, you’ll need to be able to handle whatever behavior they present to you.        

Communication: To motivate and inspire clients, in addition to teaching loved ones and managers about various conditions, you’ll need to be an excellent communicator. What’s more, you’re expected to treat every patient as an individual, which means having exceptional listening skills so you can tailor plans to suit your clients and get the most out of each one. 

Problem-solving: There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment style or approach for occupational therapists. You’ll need to be the sort of person who’s capable on making on the spot decisions that have everyone’s best interests in mind. To find the right solution for each patient, you’ll need to go through a meticulous problem-solving process.

Imagination: When working with children, imagination is essential. Children don’t understand many concepts related to occupational therapy, so you’ll need to find imaginative tools and methods for inspiring them to engage with their care plan.

Resilience: Resilience is the ability to recover speedily from setbacks and be tough in the face of a challenge. It’s not just mental strength you need in this role, though. You’ll work with several patients in a single day, potentially performing physiotherapy duties or helping clients with heavy equipment. 

Authenticity: Children and sensitive people are often highly tuned into how genuine the people around them are. They’re often more tuned into physical and body language than words, and by showing genuine compassion and concern, you’ll inspire the best results. 

Organization: Your patients often have their wellbeing in your hands, so being organized is essential. Managing your case load, designing your schedule, and making plans for each patient require high-level organizational skills.

Team working: No matter which setting you work in, you’ll get better results by working closely with everyone else involved in the care of your patient. From physicians to teachers, family members, and managers at work, you’ll need to work closely with these individuals to get the best outcomes for clients.

Nurturing: Due to a demanding workload, OTs are often required to switch quickly between caring for various patients. If you don’t have a genuine passion for caregiving, this is practically impossible. Intentional nurturing is one of the major roles, and although it’s somewhat intangible, it has a huge impact of the efficacy of treatment.  

Patience: You’ll work with clients who are facing struggles many of us couldn’t imagine living with on a daily basis. As such, you might come across some people who are rude, aggressive, mistrustful, depressed, or impatient. No matter how challenging a person is, your compassion and care for them must remain consistent. Some clients might respond quickly to treatment, while others might take years, and you’ll need to approach each one with grace and understanding.

Writing skills: Documentation is a major aspect of the role. If you’re not proficient at writing up reports and the like at speed, you’ll find yourself quickly developing a backlog of work. Grammar, voice, and tone must all be appropriate and demonstrate the utmost professionalism.  

Inspiration: There’s no room for being judgmental or negative as an occupational therapist. Your job isn’t just to go through the motions of showing clients exercises and offering advice, you need to be able to motivate people to actually succeed. The better you are at inspiring people, the better you’ll perform in the role.

Energy: Another slightly intangible but absolutely essential facet of working as an OT is energy. Your tone of voice, facial expression, speed of movement, choice of verbal language, and body language are all essential for setting the tone in a therapeutic environment. The energy you give off is contagious, so being positive and uplifting will rub off on your clients.   

Principles: As a certified occupational therapist, you have a responsibility to people who might be extremely vulnerable. You’ll be faced with important decisions on behalf of others, so having a strong moral compass is essential. OTs often work unsupervised, so the only person policing your behavior is you. As such, only the most caring, genuine, and principled individuals make the best therapists.  

Perception: People who experience challenges are often extra sensitive to body language and many unfortunately experience anxiety and depression in response to bullying and judgment in society. Along with children, they often don’t feel entitled to ask for what they really want or need, because they don’t want to be a burden on anyone. You’ll need to be an expert in reading between the lines to offer the most effective advocacy.

Tenacity: Some days will be extremely tiring and progress can be extremely slow — or might not happen at all. Tenacity will keep you motivated when the odds are stacked against you.

Flexibility: Clients might postpone and cancel appointments, and it’s rare the initial timeframe for your schedule will end up being accurate. One day you might work with older adults in their homes, and the next day you could be in a school working with five-year-olds. No matter what the day, week, or year throws at you, you’ll need to be flexible and prepared for uncertainty. 

Occupational therapy job opportunities and outlook

According to the BLS, the job outlook for occupational therapists is excellent, with the growth rate between 2019 and 2029 set at a whopping 16%, which is significantly higher than the national average of 4%.

As science provides us with a deeper understanding of various health conditions and the best methods for treating them, the demand for occupational therapists will continue to grow. Conditions such as autism and ADHD are being caught earlier in kids, and there’s more knowledge surrounding rehabilitation for people who suffered a stroke or have a substance use disorder. What’s more, the population is aging, and the elderly form a major component of an OT’s client base.

Best states to work as an occupational therapist

Data from the BLS shows that the following states are the best for occupational therapists:

  • California: California is bustling with opportunities for licensed occupational therapists, and the average annual wage is $101,080.
  • Hawaii: Hawaii is one of the states in which OTs are in highest demand, and the mean annual salary is $85,900. 
  • Louisiana: There are fewer OTs in Louisiana, so it’s easier to get a job here. The mean annual wage is $$88,370. 
  • Nevada: OTs in Nevada are the highest earning, at $111,270, and there are plenty of occupational therapist jobs.  
  • Arizona: Arizonan occupational therapists enjoy a comfortable salary of $99,950 and there are an array of openings in the state.
  • New Jersey: There’s high demand for OTs in New Jersey, and the average annual earnings are $98,750.

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