Occupational Therapists Have a Healthy Future

Compared to some of the older medical professions, occupational therapy (OT) is still relatively new. It developed only after the Second World War. OT was used to rehabilitate wounded war vets. The idea was to enable them to return to the workforce.

It was an important service at the time. But the concept of helping injured people return to work has led to somewhat of an identity crisis for OT. Rehabilitating injured workers was an important service. But today it's really a very small part of the occupation as a whole.

"People don't know what [occupational therapists] do," says Sharon Brintnell. She is a professor and director of the occupational performance analysis unit at a university.

The profession is misunderstood by many. But Brintnell says occupational therapy has never disappeared. In fact, it has grown and expanded into the entire network of health services. And as more people become aware of the health benefits OT has to offer, the demand for these services will continue to grow.

Occupational therapy is a diverse profession. That's another reason it's often misunderstood. OTs work with people of all ages, suffering from a wide variety of disabilities.

They're trained in all aspects of physical and mental health. They can help those suffering from head injuries, spinal cord injuries, and foot and hand pain. They can also help with disabilities caused by debilitating diseases such as spina bifida, cerebral palsy, Parkinson's disease and arthritis. OTs also help people suffering from mental illnesses, substance abuse and depression.

"We use occupational therapy to rehabilitate people back to daily living," says Anne O'Riordan. She is a lecturer and admissions assistant for an occupational therapy program at a university.

Basically, occupational therapists help people live better. From changing dressings and building splints to removing barriers in a home or workplace, OTs help people improve their quality of life -- which often results in people being able to look after themselves.

OTs provide skills assessments, which determine where each client needs help. They then devise an individualized therapy program for each client, based upon each client's needs, to help them recover from their illness or injury as quickly as possible. This often requires working with the clients' family members, employers or other health professionals to ensure they get the most out of their therapy.

Cindy Kempf is the president of the Missouri OT Association. She says this trend is especially true with baby boomers. "As people get older and people live longer, there are more needs for OT services with older adults," adds Kempf.

With this trend comes the movement of OT services into private facilities. "Many therapists are now working outside of the medical and educational systems. And the feedback we have been receiving is very positive," says Kempf.

O'Riordan agrees. "Although many OTs continue to work in hospitals, private practice is an up-and-coming area," she says.

More and more non-traditional places of employment are springing up in communities. These include mental health clinics, wellness clinics, workers' compensation offices, retirement homes, psychiatric facilities, home care programs, community health centers and other facilities within the workplace.

"There's also a trend towards entrepreneurial-type roles," adds O'Riordan. Many OTs are choosing to work as consultants and are self-employed. There will always be a need for OTs in hospitals, adds O'Riordan. But she says longer-term rehabilitation is happening in the community and in people's homes.

Another trend is a greater need for OTs in rural areas. There seems to be a surplus of OTs in metropolitan areas. But there's a shortage in smaller communities.

This is the case in Michigan, says Doreen Head. She is a senior lecturer and OT at Wayne State University in Detroit. "In southeast Michigan, there are plenty of OTs. But as you move up the state, there's [fewer OTs] but plenty of jobs," she says.

"If you're prepared to move, you'll find a job."

There also seems to be a demand for OTs worldwide.

"There is a keen interest in occupational therapy internationally," says O'Riordan. She traveled to Bosnia and Russia to provide OT services. She adds that for those OTs who wish to travel, job opportunities are plentiful.

But for those OTs who prefer to stay in North America, job opportunities should also be good. Sue Forwell works at the school of rehabilitation sciences at a university. She says there is still a "huge shortage" of OTs in her area.

"For every one graduate, there are two jobs," says Forwell. She adds that the school had 36 graduates to fill 85 positions this year.

But others say the shortage of OTs is not as critical as it was. "It's better than what it was," says Lorna Reimer. She is president of an OT association. She says that for a while, there was a shortage of OTs in rural areas.

Head agrees there is still a demand in the U.S. But she says it does depend on the area of practice as well as the physical location.

"Lots of students are scared because health dollars are being cut back," says O'Riordan. But she believes this will actually open the door to more OT positions, especially at the community level.

Getting into OT programs is not as difficult as it was. But class sizes are still small and grade requirements are high. Many students already have a degree prior to applying to OT programs.

However, because the occupation is so diverse, the demand for qualified people with a well-rounded education will continue. "There are so many options, you could change your job every two years," says Reimer. You could work in areas of mental health, pediatrics, geriatrics or even as a contractor.

"If you want a job, you'll find one," adds O'Riordan. And that's a trend that won't be changing any time soon.


American Occupational Therapy Association
This organization's Web site provides valuable information pertaining to the profession in the U.S.

This occupational therapy site provides several good links

Advance Health Care Network
This site features current headlines in occupational therapy and provides a recent American salary survey

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