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Nature of the Work
Occupational therapy offers good job opportunities and high pay.
Occupational therapists will be among the fastest growing occupations, as rapid growth in the number of middle-aged and elderly individuals increases the demand for therapeutic services.
Additional demand will result from medical advances that allow more patients with critical problems to survive and require rehabilitation.
Occupational therapists work with individuals who have conditions that are mentally, physically, developmentally, or emotionally disabling, and help them to develop, recover, or maintain daily living and work skills. They not only help clients improve basic motor functions and reasoning abilities, but also compensate for permanent loss of function. Their goal is to help clients have independent, productive, and satisfying lives.
Occupational therapists assist clients in performing activities of all types, ranging from using a computer, to caring for daily needs such as dressing, cooking, and eating. Physical exercises may be used to increase strength and dexterity, while paper and pencil exercises may be chosen to improve visual acuity and the ability to discern patterns. A client with short-term memory loss, for instance, might be encouraged to make lists to aid recall. One with coordination problems might be assigned exercises to improve hand-eye coordination. Occupational therapists also use computer programs to help clients improve decision making, abstract reasoning, problem solving, and perceptual skills, as well as memory, sequencing, and coordinationall of which are important for independent living.
For those with permanent functional disabilities, such as spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, or muscular dystrophy, therapists instruct in the use of adaptive equipment such as wheelchairs, splints, and aids for eating and dressing. They also design or make special equipment needed at home or at work. Therapists develop and teach clients with severe limitations to operate computer-aided adaptive equipment that helps them to communicate, and control other aspects of their environment.
Some occupational therapists, called industrial therapists, treat individuals whose ability to function in a work environment has been impaired. They arrange employment, plan work activities and evaluate the client's progress.
Occupational therapists may work exclusively with individuals in a particular age group, or with particular disabilities. In schools, for example, they evaluate children's abilities, recommend and provide therapy, modify classroom equipment, and in general, help children participate as fully as possible in school programs and activities.
Occupational therapists in mental health settings treat individuals who are mentally ill, mentally retarded, or emotionally disturbed. To treat these problems, therapists choose activities that help people learn to cope with daily life. Activities include time management skills, budgeting, shopping, homemaking, and use of public transportation. They may also work with individuals who are dealing with alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, eating disorders, or stress related disorders.
Recording a client's activities and progress is an important part of an occupational therapist's job. Accurate records are essential for evaluating clients, billing, and reporting to physicians and others.
Occupational therapists in hospitals and other health care and community settings generally work a 40-hour week. Those in schools may also participate in meetings and other activities, during and after the school day. Almost one-third of occupational therapists work part-time. In large rehabilitation centers, therapists may work in spacious rooms equipped with machines, tools, and other devices generating noise. The job can be tiring, because therapists are on their feet much of the time. Those providing home health care may spend several hours a day driving from appointment to appointment. Therapists also face hazards, such as backstrain from lifting and moving clients and equipment.
Therapists are increasingly taking on supervisory roles. Due to rising health care costs, third party payers are beginning to encourage occupational therapy assistants and aides to take more hands-on responsibility. By having assistants and aides work more closely with clients under the guidance of a therapist, the cost of therapy should be more modest.
Occupational therapists held about 57,000 jobs in 1996. The largest number of jobs was in hospitals, including many in rehabilitation and psychiatric hospitals. Other major employers include offices and clinics of occupational therapists and other health practitioners, school systems, home health care services, nursing homes, community mental health centers, adult daycare programs, job training services, and residential care facilities.
A small number of occupational therapists are in private practice. Some are solo practitioners, while others are in group practices. They see clients referred by physicians or other health professionals, or provide contract or consulting services to nursing homes, schools, adult daycare programs, and home health agencies.
A bachelor's degree in occupational therapy is the minimal requirement for entry into this field. All States, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia regulate occupational therapy. To obtain a license, applicants must graduate from an accredited educational program, and pass a national certification examination. Those who pass the test are awarded the title of registered occupational therapist.
In 1996, entry-level education was offered in 84 bachelor's degree programs; 15 post-bachelor's certificate programs for students with a degree other than occupational therapy; and 29 entry-level master's degree programs. Ten programs offered a combined bachelor's and master's degree. Most schools have full-time programs, although a growing number also offer weekend or part-time programs.
Occupational therapy coursework includes physical, biological, and behavioral sciences, and the application of occupational therapy theory and skills. Completion of 6 months of supervised fieldwork is also required.
Persons considering this profession should take high school courses in biology, chemistry, physics, health, art, and the social sciences. College admissions offices also look with favor on paid or volunteer experience in the health care field.
Occupational therapists need patience and strong interpersonal skills to inspire trust and respect in their clients. Ingenuity and imagination in adapting activities to individual needs are assets. Those working in home health care must be able to successfully adapt to a variety of settings.
Job opportunities for occupational therapists are expected to continue to be good. Employment of occupational therapists is expected to increase much faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2006, due to anticipated growth in demand for rehabilitation and long-term care services. The baby-boom generation's move into middle age, a period during which the incidence of heart attack and stroke increases, will increase the demand for therapeutic services. Additional services will also be demanded by the population 75 years of age and above, a rapidly growing age group that suffers from a very high incidence of disabling conditions.
Medical advances are now making it possible for more patients with critical problems to survive. These patients, however, may need extensive therapy. Finally, additional therapists will be needed to help children with disabilities prepare to enter special education programs, as required by Federal legislation.
Due to industry growth and more intensive care, hospitals will continue to employ a large number of occupational therapists. Hospitals will also need occupational therapists to staff their growing home health-care and outpatient rehabilitation programs.
Fast employment growth in schools will result from expansion of the school-age population and extended services for disabled students. Employment of occupational therapists in the home health field is also expected to grow very fast. The rapidly growing number of people age 75 and older who are more likely to need home health care, and the greater use of at-home follow-up care, will encourage this growth.
Median weekly earnings of full-time salaried occupational therapists were $780 in 1996. The middle 50 percent earned between $622 and $982. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $479; the top 10 percent earned more than $1,116.
According to a Hay Group survey of acute care hospitals, the median annual base salary of full-time occupational therapists was $42,700 in January 1997. The middle 50 percent earned between $39,100 and $46,100.
Occupational therapists use specialized knowledge to help individuals perform daily living skills and achieve maximum independence. Other workers performing similar duties include orthotists, prosthetists, physical therapists, chiropractors, speech pathologists, audiologists, rehabilitation counselors, and recreational therapists.
For more information on occupational therapy as a career and a list of education programs, send a self-addressed label and $5.00 to:
The American Occupational Therapy Association, 4720 Montgomery Ln., P.O. Box 31220, Bethesda, MD 20824-1220. Homepage: http://www.aota.org
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