An occupational therapist (OT) is a healthcare professional that helps patients gain independence through specific daily activities, or occupations. OTs consider both mental and physical health as they develop treatments and strategies to improve patients’ quality of life. You’ll find licensed OTs in different work environments, including hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and home care. Therapists may see patients of all ages, from infants to the elderly. However, many choose certifications like pediatrics or gerontology, which limit their work to specific types of patients and needs.

Related occupations in the field require less training, but also earn significantly less and can only practice under a supervising occupational therapist. A licensed occupational therapy assistant works under an OT and performs some of the same tasks, while an occupational therapy aide is not licensed and plays a more clerical role.

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) identifies six key practice areas where occupational therapists work. OT jobs may vary greatly within those key areas. Let’s look at each area, along with examples of the occupational therapy services provided there.

Children and Youth

Pediatric OTs help young people with specific impairments or developmental delays to develop necessary skills for life and learning—even from birth. Therapies for infants include massage to  increase sleep, and interventions to boost mental processes in premature babies. These services are available in hospitals, clinics, and homes. OTs support families by giving them strategies and resources for healthy behavior and good parenting. In schools, OTs coordinate with Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams to develop treatment plans. Some OTs are certified in specialized therapies like autism and sensory integration. Whatever the case, school OTs work with students to improve learning, sensory processing, motor skills, and socialization. They promote literacy by helping students participate more fully in the classroom. OTs also evaluate school activities and environments, and advise teachers and staff on improving student accessibility.

Health and Wellness

Even OTs that practice in clinical settings emphasize the “natural environments” where patients spend most of their time, particularly their homes. Patients struggling with obesity, diabetes, or preventable health issues need structure in the home that reinforce healthy habits. Establishing routines like exercise, hygiene, and meal planning help reduce healthcare costs in the long run. For patients prone to injury, OTs study daily activities and look for ways to reduce risks and increase safety. Other interventions may focus on life skills like managing time, stress, or anger. OTs also provide strategies to help other caregivers avoid burnout or injury.

Mental Health

OTs specializing in mental health work with individuals who are victims of trauma, or have a mental illness like depression. Through therapy, patients learn to recognize warning signs and avoid triggers that cause them distress. OTs teach coping strategies to manage symptoms, establish healthy routines, and find balance. They make sure patients know how to respond to changes in mental health, and how to find support in their community. To boost self-esteem, OTs encourage patients to pursue interests and develop a sense of accomplishment outside of work. 

Productive Aging

Memory, senses, and physical strength fade with the passing years, but gerontology OTs help elderly individuals be active and independent. Stroke and Parkinson’s are common conditions that affect this age group. Whether it’s in a nursing home or a private residence, OTs check living spaces for accessibility and mobility. They help modify and improve these spaces, and educate patients about preventing falls. Therapies for arthritis sufferers may include exercises to reduce pain. For patients who can no longer drive, OTs assist them in arranging transportation alternatives. Some OTs who work with the elderly specialize in areas like aging in place and low vision therapy.

Rehabilitation and Disability

Other patients with mobility issues may be recovering from injury, or have physical disabilities due to disease or movement disorder. It’s an OT’s job to help those patients function and thrive as fully as the condition allows. Therapies may be short term, ending in a return to full mobility. For those suffering from degenerative or chronic conditions, like cerebral palsy, therapies are needed long term. Assistive equipment like wheelchairs or adaptive equipment like eating aids may be prescribed. Some OTs in this practice area are certified in brain injury, stroke rehabilitation, hand therapy, and other specializations.

Work and Industry

OT also focuses on the workplace—not just safety and injury prevention, but also adapting workspaces for disabled individuals. Occupations are all about tasks, and OTs help employees be successful whether recovering from injury or coping with disability. They assist injured individuals in setting rehabilitation goals and preparing to return to work. This includes therapy for employees whose injuries caused cognitive impairments, such as loss of memory and focus. OTs also help individuals with disabilities find jobs that are well-suited to their capabilities, and work with employers to provide modifications. Some OTs specialize in ergonomics and help adapt workstations to the individual, increasing both comfort and efficiency.

Occupational Therapy Job Outlook

OT careers are on the rise and well compensated. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, occupational therapy jobs will grow by 16% between 2019 and 2029. BLS also reports that OTs earned a median salary of $84,950 in 2019.

To become a licensed OT, you must pass an exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. You might even pursue advanced certification in a specialty area, like assistive technology or autism. But before all that, you’ll need the right schooling. 

Educational requirements for an OT start with a bachelor’s degree, along with prerequisite courses in science, like biology and physiology. For your graduate studies, you may choose a master’s degree in occupational therapy, which prepares you to be an entry-level practitioner. Or you may choose to earn a doctorate in OT. The doctoral degree program takes three years to complete, but gives you additional work experience and flexibility in your practice.

If you’re considering any of these occupational therapy careers, consider earning your graduate degree at Presbyterian College. PC’s occupational therapy doctoral program provides the knowledge and clinical experience you need to enter the field.