You’ve heard about the field of occupational therapy (OT), but you may not be totally clear on what OTs actually do. In this post, we outline what an occupational therapist does, and—if the profession intrigues you—how you can become an OT.
What Is Occupational Therapy?
Occupational therapy involves hands-on work helping people improve their quality of life by engaging in activities that matter to them. “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).
What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?
Occupational therapists are healthcare professionals who help patients maximize functional performance. They work with people who have injuries, illnesses, disabilities, or other conditions that affect their ability to perform the activities of daily living (occupations).1
An OT takes activities that are meaningful to the patient and incorporates them into the treatment plan, using them therapeutically to restore function. Functional restoration may consist of strengthening, performing the task a different way, using adaptive equipment, or modifying the environment to get the job done. This work helps the patient to gain or regain independence, whether they are a child born with developmental delays, a construction worker with a hand injury, or an older adult who has survived a stroke.
Typically, OTs work in clinical or school settings according to the medical model, with insurance reimbursement. However, there is currently a movement in the field toward working with marginalized people in community-based settings, such as homeless shelters, community mental health sites, and residential facilities. These emerging practice areas are exciting opportunities for OTs, though reimbursement can be challenging.
Occupational therapists’ experiences are as unique as the people they serve. Being an OT gives you the opportunity to work one-on-one with clients to help them return to meaningful activities and improve their lives.
Whom Do Occupational Therapists Treat?
Occupational therapists work with individuals throughout their lives in a variety of settings, making sure to address not only the physical impairments associated with an individual’s condition, but also the psychological and cognitive aspects.
For example, a stroke does not just affect the way a person walks, it affects how they think and feel. It can impact the way they eat and bathe, and even their ability to recognize family members. A stroke can change someone’s ability to live alone, drive a car, work at a job, or care for loved ones. Because conditions affect everyone differently, occupational therapists customize treatment for each individual client.
Occupational therapists work with people across the lifespan, from infants to adults and seniors. An OT can assist a baby having trouble eating, a child with handwriting difficulties, or a person with schizophrenia who needs help navigating the workforce.
With so many ways they can help people, occupational therapists can choose to specialize in an area and earn a certificate proving their expertise. These specializations include low vision, assistive technology, breastfeeding, caregiver training, driving and community mobility, feeding, pediatrics, hand therapy, physical rehabilitation, mental health, environmental modifications, and school systems.
Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy
Although occupational therapy seems similar on first glance to physical therapy, the two fields are actually quite different. Occupational therapy works holistically with a person to address their physical, mental, and emotional conditions and help them engage better in their daily lives. Physical therapy, on the other hand, is mainly focused on physical movement and healing.
For example, a person who is recovering from a knee surgery would visit a physical therapist for help walking, bending, and putting weight on their knee. A person recovering from a stroke would visit an occupational therapist to learn how to do daily tasks in adaptive ways, such as brushing their teeth and changing clothes.
The main difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy is that physical therapy is mainly focused on reducing pain and restoring movement of the body, while occupational therapy focuses on helping the patient regain independence and confidence while performing activities of daily living and other personally meaningful pursuits.2
Occupational Therapy Salary and Job Growth
Occupational therapy is a growing field. In 2019, there were 143,300 OT jobs, with a 16% projected increase in available jobs through 2029.3
Also in 2019, the median salary for an occupational therapist was $84,950 per year.4 The lowest 10% of earners earned less than $56,800, while the highest 10% of earners made more than $121,490. An OT’s salary can vary by work schedule, facility, and geographic location.
Hospitals and offices of rehabilitation practitioners were tied as the largest employers of occupational therapists in 2019. However, OTs also found work in schools, home healthcare services, and nursing care facilities. And many others pursued unconventional practice areas and creative careers.
How to Become an Occupational Therapist
In order to become an occupational therapist, you must complete the following three steps:
- Complete a bachelor’s degree: The first step is to earn a bachelor’s degree in a related field from an accredited institution. While some graduate schools will accept only a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy, most will accept an undergraduate degree in psychology, kinesiology, biology, health science, sociology, or even liberal arts, provided that prerequisite courses have been completed.
- Earn a master’s or doctoral degree in occupational therapy: In order to become a licensed occupational therapist, you must earn at least a master’s degree, such as a Master of Occupational Therapy. Master’s programs typically take around two years to complete.* If you want to further your career opportunities, you can opt to earn your Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD). In the additional study time to earn your doctorate, you will get training in research, advocacy, and leadership.
- Pass the NBCOT: You will need to pass the National Board of Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam to practice in your state.
Occupational therapy is a profession that’s personal and flexible, depending on the individual OT and the patient. There are opportunities for creativity, growth, and change. OTs use their broad background in science, rehabilitation, and psychology to empower the whole person.
If you are interested in learning more about the rewarding profession of OT, we invite you to check out the occupational therapy programs available at USAHS.
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers hands-on Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) and Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) degrees. Practice with mock patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with patients across the lifespan, as well as advanced roles in research, practice leadership, and policymaking. Residential and Flex (online/weekend) paths are available. We also offer an online Post-Professional Doctor of Occupational Therapy (ppOTD) program designed for working clinicians and healthcare educators, with optional on-campus immersions.**
*The program is designed to be completed in this amount of time; however, the time to completion may vary by student, depending on individual progress, credits transferred, and other factors.
**OT entry-level programs are subject to the accreditation regulations of ACOTE; however, post-professional programs are not under the jurisdiction of ACOTE.
- American Occupational Therapy Association, “What Is Occupational Therapy?” https://www.aota.org/Conference-Events/OTMonth/what-is-OT.aspx
- Healthline, “Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy: What to Know:” https://www.healthline.com/health/occupational-therapy-vs-physical-therapy
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Therapists,” https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm