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Think You Know What Occupational Therapists Do? Think Again!

Happy Occupational Therapy (OT) Month!

This month, we are celebrating occupational therapists and their valuable contributions to healthcare. Occupational therapists are critical members of the rehabilitation (and overall healthcare) team, yet their role is often misunderstood. In honor of occupational therapy month, we are here to bust some myths about occupational therapists, and shine a light on this wonderful profession.

Head over to NewGradOccupationalTherapy to learn more about our OT colleagues!

Do you really know what occupational therapists do?

Those of us in healthcare are generally aware of  occupational therapists’ typical roles and duties. However, as many occupational therapists will tell you, the public is often unaware of an occupational therapist’s scope of practice.

Occupational therapy maximizes health, well-being, and quality of life for all people, populations, and communities through effective solutions that facilitate participation in everyday living.” – American Occupational Therapy Association

Kate Loukas, a clinical professor at the University of New England’s Master of Science in Occupational Therapy Program, explains that occupational therapists focus on occupational performance of individuals, populations, and communities. Occupational therapists work on the volition of the client and often use a strength-based approach.

Despite the powerful influence of occupational therapy in patient care and patient outcomes, there are many myths and misconceptions about occupational therapists. Let’s set them straight.

Occupational therapy myth-busters

Myth: Occupational therapists’ main role is to help people find jobs.

When referring to the field of occupational therapy, “occupations” can be broadly defined as things you want or need to fulfill life roles and find meaning. Occupations include work, play, education, rest, activities of daily living, instrumental activities of daily living, and social participation.

OTs promote and increase independence with these everyday tasks. Therefore, occupational therapists can routinely work with children, retirees, special needs populations, and unemployed adults.

For children, “play” is their occupation. It is through playing that children develop critical life skills, such as socialization, grasping objects, and hand-eye coordination.

Myth: Occupational therapists only work in hospitals.

OTs can work in a variety of settings, including skilled nursing facilities, schools, day care centers, community programs, home health, mental health facilities, and outpatient clinics. Many occupational therapists will perform treatments in the patient’s home, as this is where many patients spend most of their time.

Some occupational therapists may even accompany patients to their job sites. For example, an OT might assess the workplace environment, educate patients on workplace ergonomics, or provide workplace modification recommendations to employers and management.

Occupational therapy can be performed virtually anywhere. Many occupational therapy treatments can be carried out without specific therapeutic devices or exercise equipment. Creativity is crucial to promoting optimal patient rehabilitation.

Myth: Occupational therapy is the same as physical therapy.

Although OTs and PTs often work closely together, they are not the same. Physical therapists focus on overall mobility, while occupational therapists focus on activities of daily living. However, this is not a hard-in-stone rule-of-thumb.

Similarly, physical therapists generally work on gross motor movements, while occupational therapists work on fine motor movements. But again, this cannot be generalized to 100% of all cases.

An OT colleague of mine explains the difference between PT and OT to patients by saying, “A physical therapist will teach you how to walk. An occupational therapist will help you put on your dancing shoes and dance the night away!”

Myth: Physical therapists can perform occupational therapy.

From my experience, many patients are under the belief that physical therapists can fulfill the roles and duties of an occupational therapist. As mentioned above, although OTs and PTs can co-treat, a PT cannot do an OT’s job, and vice versa.

Myths: Occupational therapists only work with the elderly and patients with special needs. Occupational therapists only help people with their activities of daily living (ADLs).

Occupational therapists have a wide scope of practice and work with people of all ages – including newborn babies and children. On average, one-third of an OT’s caseload is children. Occupational therapists work with people across the lifespan, from neonatal care to hospice.

Occupational therapy is appropriate for anyone looking to increase their overall independence during any stage of life. Examples include a child with attentional and sensory issues, an adult post-motor vehicle accident with a spinal cord injury who needs to learn how to use a wheelchair, or a young child struggling with his or her handwriting.

Myths: Occupational therapists only work on hands. Occupational therapists can only work on the upper extremities.

This is a common, yet false, myth about occupational therapists. Occupational therapists can work – within their scope of practice – on any part of the human body, even the lower extremities, and spine.

OTs do address functional deficits related to spinal surgery, as well as spine and lower extremity conditions. OTs treat these conditions from an occupation-based perspective. This includes training functional movements required to perform ADL and IADL tasks, such as bathing, dressing, and home management, as well as leisure activities that involve the spine and/or lower extremities.” – American Occupational Therapy Association

Myth: Occupational therapy is boring.

Occupational therapy can be custom-tailored to tasks in an individual’s life. As mentioned earlier, occupational therapy can often be performed without specialized therapeutic equipment.

More recently, motion-controlled video games (e.g. Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect) have become increasingly popular in therapeutic settings for patients of all ages. The Xbox Kinect Sports and Wii Sports games can deliver many therapeutic benefits, such as improvements in gross and fine motor planning, increased upper extremity activity, and improved core control. The Wii Fit game allows patients to work on balance, coordination, and spatial awareness. Games like Dance Dance Revolution, Kinect Dance Central, and Kinect Training work on building a patient’s strength, activity tolerance, and ability to follow sequences.

All of these games allow for a wide variety of sensory input. When working with children, they are often unaware they are participating in a therapeutic treatment; they simply believe they are playing a video game for fun!

An occupational therapy session can be quite enjoyable for children and adults alike.

The future of occupational therapy

This year, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) is celebrating its 100th anniversary! Like the APTA, the AOTA has its sights set far into the future. The AOTA has outlined their ideas in the Vision 2025 plan. The focus of the AOTA’s Vision 2025 is to ensure all occupational therapists are:

  • Accessible: Occupational therapy provides culturally responsive and customized services
  • Collaborative: Occupational therapy excels in working with clients and within systems to produce effective outcomes
  • Effective: Occupational therapy is evidence-based, client-centered, and cost-effective
  • Leaders: Occupational therapy is influential in changing policies, environments, and complex systems

Currently, a master’s degree is considered the minimum educational requirement to practice occupational therapy. However, the AOTA’s Vision 2025 has stated that a doctorate should be considered the entry-level education for occupational therapists by the year 2025.

People and other professionals can sometimes minimize the importance of participating in everyday life’s activities (occupations). However, this is a critical component to finding meaning in one’s life. Occupational therapy is the only profession that helps people across the lifespan do the things they want and need through the therapeutic use of daily activities (occupations). Occupational therapy practitioners enable people of all ages to live life to the fullest by helping them promote health, and prevent—or live better with—injury, illness, or disability.” – Elizabeth Crampsey, Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of New England’s Master of Science in Occupational Therapy Program

Thank an occupational therapist today!

I hope this cleared up some common myths about occupational therapists. Wish your OT friends and colleagues a happy Occupational Therapy Month this April!

Special Thanks to current faculty members and graduates from the University of New England’s Master of Science in Occupational Therapy Program.


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About Clinton Boone

Clinton Boone
I am a physical therapist currently practicing for Independence Physical Therapy in Crete, IL. I graduated with my Doctorate in Physical Therapy at the University of New England in Portland, ME and completed my undergraduate studies at Bradley University in Peoria, IL. In my spare time, I like to lift weights, travel, make new memories with my fiancé, and learn more about the profession of physical therapy. I chose to become a PT to help others and leave a positive impact in the world

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