What is the Role of an Occupational Therapist?

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Occupational therapists (OTs) may commonly work alongside physical therapists and other healthcare providers to provide therapeutic and rehabilitation treatment to patients. Finding the right candidate to fill an OT position can mean looking for key skills and traits that are essential for success as an occupational therapist. Additionally, you can use the information in this guide to help you determine what to look for when seeking an occupational therapist.


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What is an occupational therapist?

An occupational therapist (OT) is a healthcare professional who is trained in therapeutic approaches that work with a patient’s ability to perform routine tasks and activities, usually as a means of rehabilitation or therapy after an injury or illness. Occupational therapists may commonly work with patients to evaluate their range of motion, motor skills and their ability to perform basic tasks like dressing, tying shoes, combing hair and other occupational activities.

Occupational therapy works by using everyday activities (or occupational activities) as a means to rehabilitate a muscle, range of movement or to otherwise improve a patient’s overall ability to perform lifestyle tasks.


The role of an occupational therapist

The role of an occupational therapist involves meeting and discussing treatment plans with patients and initiating therapeutic methods for improving patients’ ability to perform basic functions that are necessary for an everyday routine. Occupational therapists may also work with physical therapists to approach patient care with a combined therapy plan to improve patient results. Occupational therapists may also work with patients who suffer from injuries or traumas, such as strokes, surgeries or accidents to help them heal and improve their lifestyles.


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Key skills, job duties and responsibilities

Occupational therapists typically have a range of different skill sets, from soft skills like effective communication and teamwork skills to hard skills like technical skills and job-specific skills. Because of the range in skills occupational therapists can have, it is important to look for these key traits in the job candidates you communicate with, including top skills, essential duties and responsibilities that can be typical in the position. The following information can provide some insight into what to look for when hiring an occupational therapist.


Key skills

Occupational therapists should have a combination of soft and hard skills to be successful in the position. The following skill sets can be essential for working in occupational therapy:


  • Interpersonal skills
  • Communication skills
  • Emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion
  • Analytical and problem-solving skills
  • Technical skills like using facility computer systems and databases
  • Organizational skills

While these skill sets are not the only skills an occupational therapist may need in the role, they are crucial for candidates to perform successfully and competently in an occupational therapy position.


Essential job duties and responsibilities

Occupational therapists can also have essential responsibilities that are unique to the role. For instance, meeting with patients to establish a routing therapy plan can be considered a key responsibility that an OT may perform as part of their job. The following responsibilities may also be essential to an OT role:


  • Evaluating patients to establish a personalized therapy plan to achieve the most effective results
  • Administering therapy approaches and instructing patients with therapy activities and tasks that promote rehabilitation of patient injuries and traumas
  • Using technical or computer equipment to document and display patient medical information and reports
  • Organizing and maintaining patient medical and treatment records and documenting therapy sessions and approaches
  • Maintaining therapy equipment such as walkers, lifts, mechanical chairs, pulleys and other exercise equipment that is used for therapy sessions
  • Working in tandem with physical therapists and speech pathologists to develop and implement effective treatment plans for patients

Depending on the facility where an occupational therapist works, the required job duties and essential responsibilities that an OT takes on can differ. For instance, in a rehabilitation setting, a key responsibility might be to help a patient regain their mobility, whereas in an assisted living facility this may not be an essential focus or goal.


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Occupational therapist FAQs

The following frequently asked questions about occupational therapists can provide additional information about the position:


  • What education and degree are required to be an occupational therapist?
  • How long does it take to become an occupational therapist?
  • Where can an occupational therapist work?
  • What is the work environment like for an occupational therapist?
  • Are there any specialty fields for occupational therapists?


What education and degree are required to be an occupational therapist?

Generally, occupational therapists are required to hold a minimum of an associate’s degree to work as a certified occupational therapy assistant (COTA). Oftentimes, successful occupational therapists may have a bachelor’s degree along with their occupational therapist certification, and the certification for occupational therapy is what enables these professionals to work in the field.


How long does it take to become an occupational therapist?

Depending on the training, occupational therapists can earn their degrees in as little as two years for an associate’s and up to four years to earn a bachelor’s. Both degree levels will require candidates to pass their certification exams to obtain licensure.


Where can an occupational therapist work?

Occupational therapists may commonly be employed in a variety of healthcare facilities. OTs can work as part of a rehab team within a medical rehabilitation center, in outpatient surgery centers, in nursing homes and assisted living facilities and within private and government-backed therapy facilities.


What is the work environment like for an occupational therapist?

Occupational therapists may be required to perform a variety of physical tasks, from lifting to standing to helping patients move. Therefore, it can be important for OTs to have a high level of endurance and fitness to be successful in performing in the physical roles of the job.


Are there any specialty fields for occupational therapists?

Several specialty certifications are available for occupational therapists who choose to advance their careers. For instance, an OT can choose to become board certified, enabling the OT to work in a variety of higher-level therapy services. Likewise, there are several specialty certifications for OTs including certification in gerontology (BCG), mental health (BCMH), pediatrics (BCP) and physical rehabilitation (BCPR).


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