Occupational Therapy OT

| 20 December 2023

The data in this blog is for general informational purposes only and information presented was accurate as of the publication date.

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

A USAHS physical therapy student works with a patient.

If you are seeking an exciting health sciences profession that centers on improving patients’ lives, consider a career as an occupational therapist (OT). This rewarding career might be a good fit for a compassionate individual who wants to support others.

But what does an occupational therapist do? An occupational therapist works with patients to improve their overall well-being and enhance their ability to engage in everyday activities.1

Learn more about an occupational therapist’s role and responsibilities and the many opportunities this profession offers.

Table of Contents

What Is an Occupational Therapist?

An occupational therapist works with patients whose illnesses, injuries and disabilities impact their ability to perform basic daily living and work activities.3 They evaluate their needs and identify goals to help them recover, maintain or improve those skills. 2,3

Description of what an occupational therapist is.

“OTs learn about who you are and help you get back to doing the things that are important to you,” says Dr. Maureen Johnson, PhD, MS, OT/L, an Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS).

Occupational Therapist’s Role and Responsibilities

An occupational therapist’s initial role with a patient is to assess the patient’s needs. They do not diagnose a condition.2 Early in their relationship with the patient, typically during the first appointment, the occupational therapist will3:

  • Review the patient’s medical history.
  • Interview the patient.
  • Observe the patient performing specific movements or activities.

Once they’ve assessed the patient, an occupational therapist’s responsibilities refocus on planning and implementing a treatment plan, which involves3:

  • Selecting the best activities for the patient’s goals
  • Demonstrating the exercises or daily living tasks
  • Evaluating the patient’s environment for potential improvements
  • Recommending adaptive equipment and showing how to use it to patients

Best skills for occupational therapists.

As the patient works through the treatment plan, the occupational therapist will continually assess and record their progress, adjusting it as needed.3 They will also work collaboratively with the patient’s doctors and healthcare team and educate family members and caregivers on how to support the treatment plan.

Some occupational therapists may also oversee occupational therapy assistants or aides in their healthcare setting.3

Occupational Therapy Specialties

Once you’re a practicing occupational therapist, you can earn an advanced certification in several specializations. These specialty certifications show your patients and potential employers that you have advanced skills, knowledge and practice experience in specific areas of care.6

List of occupational therapy specialties.

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) offers different specialization board certifications, including:

  1. Gerontology
  2. Pediatrics
  3. Physical Rehabilitation

Other occupational therapy specializations include:

Where Does an Occupational Therapist Work?

While most occupational therapists work in healthcare settings, such as hospitals and rehabilitation offices, other places employ occupational therapists.7

Largest employers of occupational therapists

Many occupational therapists also work in schools, home healthcare services and nursing care facilities. Others work as virtual occupational therapists or prefer to be travel occupational therapists. Some also work as consultants in health information technology, driving and community mobility, public health and more.1

Depending on their career path, they can either work full- or part-time, and some positions may require them to work nights and weekends depending on patient needs.7

How to Become an Occupational Therapist

Earning at least a master’s degree in occupational therapy and a license to practice are two common prerequisites for becoming an occupational therapist.4 The typical path for most occupational therapists is as follows:

    1. Earn a bachelor’s degree. Many schools don’t require a specific undergraduate major as long as you meet the school’s admission requirements for their occupational therapy program. For the best chance of completing all the prerequisites while earning your undergraduate degree, consider pursuing one of the best undergraduate degrees for occupational therapy.
    2. Earn a Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT). When choosing an OT school, look for a program that fits your needs. For example, USAHS’ MOT program offers three formats (Residential, Hybrid Immersion* and Flex) to accommodate your lifestyle and circumstances.

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  1. Pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). All states require the NBCOT to apply for licensing.8
  2. Get your state license to practice. These requirements vary by state, so check with your state’s occupational therapy licensing board.4


The following questions and answers can help you learn more about what an occupational therapist does.

What Conditions Do Occupational Therapists Treat?

Occupational therapists can treat many different conditions, such as9,10:

  • Amputation
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Bone fractures and breaks
  • Burns
  • Cancer
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • Developmental delays
  • Down syndrome
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Paralysis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Prostheses
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Schizophrenia
  • Spina bifida
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Stroke
  • Traumatic brain injuries (TBI)

What’s the Difference Between Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy?

Patients often wonder if they should pursue occupational therapy vs. physical therapy.

Patients participate in occupational therapy to improve their ability to perform everyday activities independently. These patients often experience cognitive or developmental disabilities or injuries that negatively impact their motor skills, behavior or emotions.

Patients attend physical therapy to improve their range of motion and manage pain after an injury. For example, someone who breaks their wrist playing a sport would need to attend physical therapy sessions to strengthen it after removing the cast.

What Is the Outlook for Occupational Therapy Careers?

Employment for occupational therapists is expected to grow 12% by 2032, with about 9,600 annual openings in the United States.11 This is a much faster growth than the average for all occupations.

Is Being an Occupational Therapist Worth It?

Becoming an occupational therapist is a promising career. OTs enjoy an average salary that is significantly higher than the national average of $63,795.13.12 There’s potential for job growth and you may choose between various settings and specialties.

Prepare for a Career in OT with USAHS

USAHS has been committed to graduate health sciences education since 1979 with five destination campuses in San Marcos, St. Augustine, Miami, Austin and Dallas. Our MOT and Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) programs focus on student success with collaborative cohorts and expert faculty-practitioners.

Learn more about multiple start dates and flexible pathways for the MOT program, or apply today to pursue your dream and become an occupational therapist.

*The entry-level occupational therapy master’s degree program at the Dallas, Texas, campus has applied for accreditation and has been granted Candidacy Status by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), located at 6116 Executive Boulevard, Suite 200, North Bethesda, MD 20852-4929. ACOTE’s telephone number c/o AOTA is (301) 652-AOTA and its web address is www.acoteonline.org. The program must have a preaccreditation review, complete an on-site evaluation and be granted Accreditation Status before its graduates will be eligible to sit for the national certification examination for the occupational therapist administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). After successful completion of this exam, the individual will be an Occupational Therapist, Registered (OTR). In addition, all states require licensure in order to practice; however, state licenses are usually based on the results of the NBCOT Certification Examination. Note that a felony conviction may affect a graduate’s ability to sit for the NBCOT certification examination or attain state licensure. Students must complete 24 weeks of Level II fieldwork within 24 months following completion of the didactic portion of the program.


  1. American Occupational Therapy Association, “What Is Occupational Therapy?” American Occupational Therapy Association, https://www.aota.org/about/what-is-ot.
  2. Cleveland Clinic, “Occupational Therapist,” Cleveland Clinic, last modified January 2023, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/24617-occupational-therapist.
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Therapists: What Occupational Therapists Do,” Occupational Outlook Handbook, last modified September 2023, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm#tab-2.
  4. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Therapists: How To Become an Occupational Therapist,” Occupational Outlook Handbook, last modified September 2023, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm#tab-4.
  5. Whitney Sandoval, “Occupational Therapist Jobs: 10 Specialties To Consider,” Best Colleges, last modified September 2023, https://www.bestcolleges.com/healthcare/occupational-therapist-jobs/.
  6. American Occupational Therapy Association, “Specialty Certified Practitioners,” American Occupational Therapy Association, https://www.aota.org/career/advanced-certification-program/specialty-certified-practitioners.
  7. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Therapists: Work Environment,” Occupational Outlook Handbook, last modified September 2023, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm#tab-3.
  8. American Occupational Therapy Association, “Find Your State Licensure Answers,” American Occupational Therapy Association, https://www.aota.org/career/state-licensure/frequently-asked-questions.
  9. Cleveland Clinic, “Occupational Therapist,” Cleveland Clinic, last modified January 2023, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/24617-occupational-therapist.
  10. National Library of Medicine, “What Is Occupational Therapy?” National Library of Medicine, last modified August 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK561515/.
  11. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Therapists: Job Outlook,” Occupational Outlook Handbook, last modified September 2023, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm#tab-6.
  12. Social Security Administration, “National Average Wage Index,” Social Security Administration, https://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/AWI.html.


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