April is Occupational Therapy Month. As we celebrate the OT profession and its vital role in health care, Occupational Therapists are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic with valuable tips and advice to people and families, with an emphasis on self-care in times of stress. They are using telehealth to continue to provide their services in creative and engaging ways. Faculty members from the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) OT programs celebrate OT month by sharing their professional guidance to help our mental and physical health for those of us in social isolation and those of us working in stressful conditions as the essential workforce.
“There is great value in performing tasks that provide meaning to our lives,” USAHS Dallas faculty member Dr. Keith McWilliams, OTD, OTR/L, DRS said. “Now, more than ever, engagement in self-care activity is critical. Stay active, eat healthily, get plenty of rest, and connect with others virtually. As we deal with COVID-19 around the world, we must remain vigilant in performing activities that have a great benefit to our health.”
What do Occupational Therapists do?
Occupational therapists are healthcare professionals who help individuals maximize functional performance. They work with people who have injuries, illnesses, disabilities, or other conditions that affect their ability to perform everyday tasks with the treatment focus of the clients’ independence.
The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) says, “Occupational therapy is the only profession that helps people across the lifespan to do the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities (occupations). Occupational therapy practitioners enable people of all ages to live life to its fullest by helping them promote health and prevent—or live better with—injury, illness, or disability.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, the job is ever-changing. OTs experiences are as unique as the people they serve. Being an occupational therapist gives you the opportunity to work one on one with clients to help them reach their goal. OTs use their backgrounds in science, rehabilitation, and psychology to empower the entire person.
What is OT’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic?
OTs are currently working to prevent hospital-acquired weakness from prolonged hospitalizations as we improve the mental health of patients battling COVID-19 in hospitals and ICU, Dr. Emily Frank, Clinical Instructor at USAHS Austin explained.
“Participation in occupational therapy and an emphasis on early mobility in the ICU has shown to reduce the amount of time someone requires the use of a ventilator and improves outcomes for patients in respiratory failure,” Dr. Frank said.
Dr. Becky Piazza, OTD, MS, OTR/L, BCPR, Academic Fieldwork Coordinator at the USAHS St. Augustine campus, explained that the disruption COVID-19 causes to our work-life and daily routine can affect an individual’s sense of self, self-identity, purpose and meaning. Occupational Therapists can help navigate those disruptions and adjust our routines to help us maintain a healthy mental and physical state.
“Identifying the everyday activities that an individual needs to do, wants to do, or has to do, and working through the modifications needed to support continued participation in those occupations during quarantine and social distancing can significantly assist with an individual’s overall health and well-being,” Dr. Piazza said.
According to AOTA, mental health is a component of all Occupational Therapy interventions, which makes it an important service to all populations in a time of crisis, self-quarantine/isolation and high stress working environments for essential services staff.
Dr. McWilliams said the uncertainty of the COVID-19 progression takes an emotional toll that can cause mental health concerns such as Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) and Compassion Fatigue. He encourages all citizens, clients, first responders, nurses, therapists, physicians and healthcare employees to combat STS by making time to participate in the things you enjoy, prioritize self-care and do not be afraid to ask for help.
Occupational Therapy will not only play a role during the pandemic, but it will be crucial in the aftermath.
“We are expecting to see a trickle-down effect throughout the healthcare system and are anticipating a potential influx of patients to rehabilitation centers and nursing homes for those who survive their battle with COVID-19 but are not strong enough or independent enough to go home,” Dr. Frank said. “Once clients are medically stable, a different fight begins—that is the fight for independence, to learn how to live again after a critical health event. Occupational therapy will be there every step of the way.”
How are Occupational Therapists continuing to provide care during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Dr. Becki Cohill, OTD, OTR/L, Assistant Professor and Doctoral Coordinator for OT programs at the USAHS San Marcos campus, has worked in early-intervention pediatrics in a telehealth setting for years. She provides services in Colorado, Utah, Oklahoma and American Samoa. Since the outbreak, she has trained over one thousand therapists in pediatric settings on how to provide via telehealth.
“My suggestion to the OTs I’ve been training with on telehealth is routines help the families. Find a routine that works for them,” Dr. Cohill said. “OTs need to find ways to help parents juggle an impossible situation and start each telehealth session with gratitude and compassion.”
Telehealth policies and laws vary by state, but leaders recognize the need for telehealth therapy during this time. Just last week, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order, “allowing teletherapy services to be provided by licensed therapists across the state of Arizona to the population that they serve.” Therapists encourage other states to follow suit.
Dr. Kaitlyn Cremer, OTD, MOT, OTR/L, SCLV, Instructor for OT Programs at the USAHS St. Augustine campus, took a different approach to her role as a practicing clinician. Dr. Cremer works closely with The Arc of Putnam County, which provides advocacy, individually tailored living environments, meaningful day activities, work training and employment services to enable people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to achieve their full potential and enrich the community.
Due to COVID-19, day programs at the organization were forced to close. Dr. Cremer explained that this caused extra stress for group homes and support staff and forced clients of the program out of their habits and routines.
“I worked with the executive director to create a solution for both staff and clients. I created a packet of resources complete with a schedule for the group homes to follow, life-skill station outlines that students created over the past few terms, exercise/stay-active programming, and education for the support staff on the importance of allowing client choice,” Dr. Cremer said.
“I also post in the support staff’s Facebook group page once a day to help encourage them. My posts so far have included handwashing visual aids, de-stress tips, a short video on deep-breathing, and fun craft activities to try with the clients.”
Celebrating Occupational Therapy with Self Care
As we celebrate Occupational Therapy this month, we encourage you to take the advice from our expert faculty: take a walk, Facetime with friends, read a book, or do whatever it is that you enjoy. Stick to a routine and step away from the news occasionally. Give yourself some grace and do your best with the resources you have.
Thank you to all OTs for continuing to provide your help and expertise in this time of need.
Dr. Jessica De Brun, OTD, MOT, OTR/L, Assistant Professor at the USAHS San Marcos campus, concludes, “Occupational therapy is all about doing and encouraging others to keep doing. Keep engaging and keep living life to its fullest is key for our overall health and well-being during these uncertain times.”
How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted Occupational Therapy for you? Contact writer Taylor Clayton ([email protected]) if you would like to be included in future OT Month stories.