Everything You Need to Know About Occupational Therapy

Updated on July 25, 2022

A healthcare profession practiced by thousands of men and women around the world, occupational therapy is a crucial component of modern health and wellness. Without it, millions of injured individuals and those suffering from lifelong disabilities would be unable to function and thrive.

Unless you or someone you know is a practicing occupational therapist, chances are you don’t know too much about the field. That ends now. The following is everything you need to know about occupational therapy:


Occupational therapy involves the use of everyday activities to help patients struggling with mental illness, physical injury, disabilities, and impairments. From arts and crafts to simulated real-life experiences, the goal is to enhance the patient’s ability to perform everyday tasks in order to improve their quality of life. An occupational therapy patient could be a child learning to live with developmental disabilities, an adult struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, or a senior citizen regaining their motor skills after a stroke.


While occupational therapy sounds like a relatively new form of treatment, the fundamentals were practiced by Greek and Roman physicians as far back as 100 BCE. In the 19th century, sweeping reforms in European hospitals included the transition from harsh forms of treatment for the mentally ill and physically disabled to therapies focused on leisurely activities. However, 1915 is considered the starting point of modern occupational therapy. That year, Eleanor Clarke Slagle opened the first occupational therapy program in Chicago, called the Henry B. Favill School of Occupations.


Those aspiring to be occupational therapists must earn a master’s degree.  It can take anywhere from two to three years to earn a Master of Occupational Therapy degree. Admission requires an existing bachelor’s degree with an emphasis on biology, physiology, or similarly related health sciences. Most accredited MOT programs also require the individual to have volunteered or worked in an occupational therapy setting prior to admission.


Earning a master’s in occupational therapy is the first step toward becoming a practicing occupational therapist. The next step is to become licensed. In the United States, occupational therapy license requirements vary from state to state. However, the common denominator is successfully passing the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam. Those wishing to showcase specialized expertise within occupational therapy may also seek specific certifications covering pediatrics, mental health, or geriatrics.


The specific responsibilities of an occupational therapist vary depending on the patients with whom they work. But generally speaking, occupational therapists start by reviewing medical history, evaluating the patient’s wants and needs, and formulating an effective treatment plan. For instance, an occupational therapist working with a child diagnosed with cerebral palsy would likely focus on helping their young patient learn how to wear leg braces or use a wheelchair. Someone assigned to an adult who’s been seriously injured in a car wreck might help them make the adjustments necessary to return to work.


While many people choose to pursue occupational therapy as a viable profession, not everyone is cut out for a career in occupational therapy. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Occupational Outlook Handbook, the qualities that make an excellent occupational therapist include adaptability, compassion, and patience. Good communication skills and interpersonal skills are also considered top qualities of great occupational therapists.


As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the purpose of occupational therapy is to improve the quality of life of those suffering from physical impairments, mental health problems, and congenital disorders. This is achieved by utilizing various activities as a form of therapy. If practice makes perfect, then the purpose of occupational therapy is to help patients practice becoming more capable and less dependent. While occupational therapists aren’t miracle workers, the work they do on behalf of patients is often viewed as miraculous in terms of progress and potential.

Occupational therapy is a rapidly growing field within the broader spectrum of modern medicine. Occupational therapists are in demand in most parts of the world. Given what they do, it makes sense. Without occupational therapists, those struggling with various illnesses, injuries, or disorders would be unable to lead happy and productive lives.

Julie Steinbeck is a freelance writer from Florida. She enjoys covering topics related to business, finance, and travel.

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