Occupational therapists treat injured, ill, or disabled patients through the therapeutic use of everyday activities. They help these patients develop, recover, and improve the skills needed for daily living and working. Occupational therapists observe patients doing tasks, evaluate their condition and needs, and develop a treatment plan that lays out the types of activities and specific goals to be accomplished. Therapists help people with various disabilities with different tasks, such as leading an autistic child in play activities. They demonstrate exercises—for example, joint stretches for arthritis relief—that can help relieve pain for people with chronic conditions. On occasion, they evaluate a patient’s home or workplace and, based on the patient’s health needs, identify potential improvements.
Some occupational therapists work with children in educational settings. They evaluate disabled children’s abilities, modify classroom equipment to accommodate children with certain disabilities, and help children participate in school activities. Others provide early intervention therapy to infants and toddlers who have, or are at risk of having, developmental delays.
Therapists who work with the elderly help their patients lead more independent and active lives. For example, they may identify potential fall hazards in a patient’s home and recommend their removal. In some cases, occupational therapists help patients create functional work environments.
Occupational therapists also may work in mental health settings where they help patients who suffer from developmental disabilities, mental illness, or emotional problems.
Education and Certification Requirements
Most occupational therapists enter the occupation with a master’s degree in occupational therapy. Admission to graduate programs in occupational therapy generally requires a bachelor’s degree and specific coursework, including biology and physiology. Many programs also require applicants to have volunteered or worked in an occupational therapy setting.
All states require occupational therapists to pass the national examination administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapists (NBCOT). To sit for the NBCOT exam, candidates must have earned a degree from an accredited educational program and completed all fieldwork requirements. Therapists must pass the NBCOT exam to use the title “Occupational Therapist Registered” (OTR). They must also take continuing education classes to maintain certification.
The American Occupational Therapy Association also offers a number of certifications for therapists who want to demonstrate their advanced level of knowledge in a specialty area, such as pediatrics, mental health, or low vision.
The median annual wage for occupational therapists was $84,270 in May 2018. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $55,490, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $120,750.
Employment of occupational therapists is projected to grow 24 percent from 2016 to 2026, much faster than the average for all occupations. Occupational therapy will continue to be an important part of treatment for people with various illnesses and disabilities, such as Alzheimer’s disease, cerebral palsy, autism, or the loss of a limb.
UI students preparing for health-related careers should consult Health Professions Advising at the Career Center for help in identifying appropriate prerequisite courses, preparing for professional school exams, and learning how to construct an effective professional school application.