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Occupational therapists, (often called OTs for short) are professionally trained medical experts who specialize in helping adults and children regain or develop life or work skills after a physical, mental or developmental delay. While it may sound simple, the role of an OT is broad and allows therapists to work in a variety of settings with many different kinds of patients. Occupational therapy is used for mental health, physical disabilities, pediatric delays, work related injuries, aging populations and more. In the United States, OTs must have—at the very least—a master’s degree and have passed a national certification exam to practice. Salary ranges are between $72,000 and $104,000 annually depending on where the OT is located, their experience and other factors.
Everyday tasks like getting dressed, or using a fork to feed yourself are second nature until a problem arises. Ask a stroke patient how hard it is to put on their shirt, or use the bathroom independently and they will tell you how helpful an occupational therapist is to their recovery. This is just one example of how an OT can offer a variety of assessments and solutions for patients of all ages and their families. These can include:
Each approach used by an occupational therapist has been closely researched and studied. The American Occupational Therapy Association calls OT “science-driven and evidence-based” which means their approaches have proven effective in restoring a better quality of life.
Any time you work with people, communication is going to be very important. In addition, because OTs work with patients who tend to have physical or mental disabilities, an empathetic nature and compassionate attitude are always important. In addition, solid problem solving skills, good written and verbal communication skills, the ability to work independently, and a good sense of creativity is also helpful. What works for one patient may not work for another, and being creative—thinking outside the box—is important when you’re looking for just the right approach.
Not every job is a good fit for every one—and you don’t want to wait until you’ve spent your time and money on an education to find out it’s not for you. There are always good and bad points to any career. Here are a few to consider if you are thinking about becoming an occupational therapist.
There are more than 137,000 OTs in practice today and those numbers continue to rise. Of that number, 26.2% are employed in a hospital setting followed closely by 21.6% in schools and 19.9% in long-term care facilities. Surges in adult care are linked to a variety of factors including support for the nation’s aging baby boomers – making jobs in long-term care and adult OT settings especially important. OTs may treat patients with stroke or arthritic complications, or provide techniques to help the elderly maintain independence with daily living activities
Advances in technology have allowed children with once terminal conditions or birth defects to live long, happy lives. However, these children may need additional support to live with and manage a disability. OT’s who work in a school setting are in high demand to help this specific population– ranking second as the most common work location behind hospitals. Each work environment offers new challenges and schedules. For facilities that are open 24/7, like a hospital or nursing home, OTs may prefer the flexibility and longer shifts in favor or more days off during the week. For the school setting, OTs enjoy summer breaks and set work hours that follow the school day. Other 8-5 weekday positions can be found in clinics or as a teacher who educates new OT students. Stress level for occupational therapy is ranked as “average”.
Contracting vs. Full-Time Employment
Some OTs choose to work as independent contractors. These positions allow the OT to be their own boss and choose where they would like to work. Contracted employment means a higher rate of pay and flexibility to manage your own schedule but you’ll be left to pay your own taxes, and find your own healthcare. There are no insurance benefits when you work for yourself. Finding work may also be tricky—when one job ends, you’ll be left high and dry unless you work to find something else quickly or line up another location before one job ends. Some OTs also say that working as a contractor leaves you feeling like an outsider – not part of the full-time team. Full time employment offers its own set of pros and cons. While you will enjoy never worrying about employment, lining up your own work or paying for insurance, you will face a slightly lower pay rate and decreased flexibility with scheduling or work hours.
Becoming an OT requires many years of carefully planned education. To start, you will need to complete a four -year undergraduate degree. Undergrad majors can vary from biology to kinesiology, but students should contact graduate schools they are considering early in their education ensure they take are taking the right classes from the very beginning. Most OT programs will require classes you may not have considered – like anatomy and physiology – so make sure you find out what’s needed to eliminate snags in your educational plan.
Before applying to an OT program, you may be required to job shadow or volunteer in a therapy setting. This can help you determine if the career path is right before diving in. A master’s degree is required for practice and many pursue a doctorate as they specialize in a specific field of OT—but no states require a doctorate degree to practice. Keep in mind that OT school is rigorous and some may even make it difficult to work even a part time job outside of your classroom and required fieldwork time.
Fieldwork starts during the first year of OT school and rotates students through many areas of real life clinical settings. There are two levels of fieldwork, with level II providing more in-depth study and focus for the student. Fieldwork is unpaid and may require up to 40 hours per week for 3 months or more to complete. There are currently no online OT programs. Once you complete the required fieldwork and classroom time for your master’s degree, you will need to sit for your national certification exam. The exam is given by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy and is required for you to work in the U.S. Cost for the exam is around $500. Once you pass the certification exam, you will need to apply for licensure in your state of practice. Every state in the U.S. requires licensure except Colorado. Licensure requirements will vary from state to state, but be prepared to show proof of graduation from an accredited school and your certification exam results plus pay a licensure fee. Some states have a waiting period from receipt of your application until you are cleared to practice, so check with your state board to be sure. Once you are licensed, be prepared to keep your knowledge up with continuing education. Most states require a set number of hours every few years and you will need to show proof to renew your license.
Salaries for occupational therapists will vary depending on several factors. These include geographic location, job setting and years of experience. OTs who choose to travel for a living—working in different locations for several weeks at a time—fall at the highest end of the pay scale. Salary ranges are between $72,000* and $104,000** a year. According to U.S. News, median income for occupational therapy is $75,400 per year. OTs looking for high pay should check out Las Vegas, Nevada, Elizabethtown, Kentucky and Sherman, Texas—the top three highest ranking cities for OT income whose average is between $99,000-$109,000 per year. Hourly wages are about $36.00 an hour and up, but there are high paying jobs across the country!
Probably the closest field of consideration is the physical therapist. Physical therapists concentrate on exercise and other therapies that build physical strength, flexibility and relieve pain. Patients may receive physical therapy to treat back pain, sports injuries like a torn ACL, rheumatoid arthritis, congenital or birth defects, or after surgery to restore movement and function to an injured area of the body. Physical therapy techniques can be provided in the home or in a gym-like setting. Many physical therapy practices offer weight machines, free weights, treadmills, therapy balls and bands, and much more that are designed to restore physical function. Occupational therapists provide patients with self-care, recreational and work-related treatments to encourage independent living. While this may sometimes include exercise, stretching or flexibility work, OTs also provide patients and their families with assistive devices like wheelchairs, splints, bathing and toileting aides, and modified utensils for eating. OTs also work with patients to improve their independence with daily living activities such as bathing, dressing and grooming themselves.
Occupational therapy provides fields of study and focus areas that may be hard to find in other healthcare-based careers. One unique area of focus is hand therapy. This specialty practice area focuses on the upper extremities and may treat patients with arthritis, lacerations, or injuries to the tendons and joints. Occupational therapy also offers a wide variety of patient ages and types. One pediatric OT remarked that the best part was playing with children all day, and others enjoy work setting flexibility and helping people regain lost independence.
Many medical professions are afforded the chance to travel. If you have a sense of adventure and want to see other places and meet new people at no cost to you—this is the way to do it. Not only does travel occupational therapy pay the most, it also offers free housing, paid travel expenses, and the chance to build your skills in some of the country’s best medical facilities. Travel schedules typically last about 13 weeks before being moved to a new location.
By Rachel Ballard RNC, BSN
Rachel Ballard Rachel Ballard is a certified registered nurse and owner of the medical writing company iHealth Communications. iHealth teams with healthcare leaders to create written content that boosts revenue and builds relationships. Learn more about Rachel on Google+ Salary sources: *Bureau of Labor Statistics ** CNN Money