Occupational Therapy

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Field description

Occupational therapists work with individuals who have conditions that are mentally, physically, developmentally or emotionally disabling. Occupational therapists assist individuals to develop, recover or maintain daily living and work skills.

The word "occupation" comes from our belief that we all have "occupational roles" that contribute to who we are (for example, mother, son, spouse or employee). The goal of an occupational therapist is not only to help clients improve basic motor functions and cognitive and emotional abilities to return to these roles but also to compensate for loss of function. The occupational therapist's goal is to help clients have independent, productive and satisfying lives.

Occupational therapy is skilled treatment that helps individuals achieve independence in all facets of their lives. Occupational therapy gives people the "skills for the job of living" that are needed for independent and satisfying lives. Services typically include:

  • Customized treatment programs aimed at improving abilities to carry out the activities of daily living
  • Comprehensive evaluation of home and job environments and recommendations on necessary adaptation
  • Assessments and treatment for performance skills
  • Recommendations and training in the use of adaptive equipment
  • Guidance to family members and caregivers

Occupational therapy practitioners are skilled professionals whose education includes the study of human growth and development with specific emphasis on the social, emotional and physiological effects of illness and injury.

The occupational therapist enters the field with a bachelor's, master's or doctoral degree. The occupational therapy assistant generally earns an associate's degree. Practitioners must complete supervised clinical internships in a variety of health care settings and pass a national examination. Most states also regulate occupational therapy practice.

Career opportunities

Many occupational therapists work in hospitals, including rehabilitation and psychiatric hospitals. Other major employers include offices and clinics, school systems, home health agencies, nursing homes, community mental health centers, adult care programs, job training service programs, and residential care facilities. Other occupational therapists work in the community in more nontraditional settings such as business ergonomics, life planning and accessible home design.

Federal legislation imposing limits on reimbursement for therapy services may adversely affect the job market for occupational therapists in the near term. However, the demand for occupational therapists should continue to rise as a result of growth in the number of individuals with disabilities or limited function who require therapy services.

The baby boom generation's movement into middle age, a period when the incidence of heart attack and stroke increases, will intensify the demand for therapeutic services. The rapidly growing population older than age 75 also will require additional services, as medical advances enable more patients with critical problems to survive. These patients may need extensive therapy.

Hospitals will continue to employ a large number of occupational therapists to provide therapy services to acutely ill inpatients and to staff outpatient rehabilitation programs. Employment growth in schools will result from expansion of the school-age population and extended services for students who are disabled. Therapists will be needed to help children with disabilities prepare to enter special education programs.

Occupational therapists held about 113,200 jobs in 2012 (most recent data available). The largest number of jobs was in hospitals, including many in rehabilitation and psychiatric hospitals.

Earnings potential

Median annual wages of occupational therapists were $75,400 in 2012 (most recent data available). The lowest 10 percent earned less than $50,500, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $107,070. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of occupational therapists in 2012 were:

  • Nursing and personal care facilities: $83,430
  • Hospitals: $75,140
  • Offices of other health practitioners: $77,430
  • Elementary and secondary schools: $66,610

Professional organizations

Aug. 29, 2017