acute care must haves for occupational therapists

Acute Care Must-Haves for Occupational Therapists

Are you an occupational therapist or COTA new to the acute care setting wondering “What are the biggest acute care must-haves?” 

Well, we’ve got you covered, because I’ve compiled the top “must-haves” for the acute care setting in this article. I created this list from my favorite items along with suggestions from my acute care coworkers and OTs from the My OT Spot Facebook group. (We’d love for you to join if you’re not a member yet!)

So without further ado, here are the top acute care must-haves for occupational therapists and COTAs:

1. The Occupational Therapy in Acute Care textbook

While this textbook is a bit pricey, if you didn’t buy it in OT school, it’s worth every penny if you’re new to the acute care setting. I used it all the time when I switched from inpatient rehab to acute care, and it was SO helpful, especially since I didn’t have a fieldwork in acute care.

The book covers everything from evaluations, discharge planning, lab values, the ICU, basic body systems such as cardiac, pulmonary, orthopedics, musculoskeletal, nervous system and orthopedics, as well as oncology, transplants and burns.

The book also dives into safe patient handling, medications, low vision, bariatrics, energy conservation, altered mental status, ethics and more. Basically, it touches on everything you’ll need to know as an acute care occupational therapy practitioner. 

2. A Pulse Oximeter

In acute care, you may be constantly monitoring heart rate and oxygen levels during treatment, especially with your less stable patients. Dynamaps and pulse oximeters are so hard to come by in the hospital, therefore it’s much quicker and easier to have your own. There are so many to choose from, but this one from Amazon is my personal choice.

3. A Medical Reference Clipboard

This medical reference clipboard is foldable and has quite a bit of medical information that you’ll benefit from having in the acute setting. It has information such as lab values, stroke info, spinal cord injury info, ROM/MMT. This one is a huge hit with many of my coworkers since it fits in scrub pockets when folded up.

4. A Gait Belt

So many hospitals don’t supply gait belts in the patients’ rooms, or if they do, they’re missing half the time, so bringing your own is another “must” for safe transfers and mobility.

While cloth gait belts are easier to fasten, a wipeable vinyl gait belt like this one is a must for infection control as it is easy to wipe down after each patient. I wear mine across my torso so I don’t forget it.

5. The Occupational Therapy Toolkit

While this isn’t something you’d bring from room to room, the ever-popular OT Toolkit: Treatment Guides and Handouts has diagnosis information, home exercise programs, educational handouts and more that you can copy for your patients. I use it regularly and it is one of my most recommended resource for OT practitioners in any adult setting.

6. A Digital Watch

Acute care treatments are generally measured by minutes/units, and seeing patients at random times makes it really important to have a digital watch to write down your times and to use as a stopwatch when needed. It’s much easier than having to pull out your phone constantly.

For those interested in step-tracking as well, I really like my Fitbit Charge to easily check the time and to see how many miles and stairs I’ve walked in the hospital each day.

7. ADL Supplies

ADL retraining is one of the major treatment components in acute care. Because of this, I always carry a toothbrush and toothpaste (from my hospital’s clean supply closet) as well as a pair of non-skid socks, and if I remember, scrub pants or mesh underwear, depending on what my hospital has available.

Most patients’ rooms will already have soap/body wash, towels, and washcloths in the room (hopefully!), but if that’s usually not the case you can gather those prior to starting your session to save time.

8. Comfortable Walking Shoes

No surprise here that acute care involves a lot of walking from room to room, unit to unit, and everywhere in between. Since you’ll be on your feet all day, it’s important to have a good pair of shoes to support you. The most popular shoes among therapists in the social media world are Asics, Brooks, Danskos and New Balance.

9. An Adjustable Rolling Walker

This one may seem like common sense for the seasoned acute care OT, but if you’re new, know that you’ll definitely need your own walker from room to room, if your hospital doesn’t have walkers in each room or extras on the unit.

You might not need it all of the time but for evaluations, it’s always better to be safe than sorry and have your own on hand. My acute setting has extra walkers for each therapist, with large labels on each one to ensure that it doesn’t get taken by accident.

10. Theraband

While I try to focus mostly on self-care interventions in acute care, there are patients that can benefit from strengthening as well, especially if they’ve been in the hospital for a prolonged period. Along with bringing along one or two Therabands, I also recommend having some printed out home exercise programs that you can educate the patient to do during their down time.

11. A Helpful Physical Therapist Partner

I learned quickly as I began venturing into the acute care world how useful it is to have an awesome physical therapist to collaborate with, especially during the evaluation process and discharge planning.

It can feel lonely in acute care since you’re generally one on one in the patient’s room and don’t have other therapists to bounce ideas off like you would in a gym or rehab unit.

Working with the PT that is also treating the same patients is a great way to have that camaraderie. It’s better for you as a therapist to have another professional to engage with, you may come up with new treatment ideas, and it benefits the patient! Wins all around.

12.  The Acute Care E-book

When I started working in acute care as an OT, I had a hard time finding good resources that would help me with the day to day aspects of the job. Because of this, I struggled to come up with quality interventions and felt like I was all on my own. Over time, I made a lot of progress and learned a TON about being an acute care OT.

I truly believe this information will be useful to others, so I wanted to share the knowledge that I’ve gained and create something easily accessible for other OTs searching for acute care ideas and interventions.

So, I teamed up with Shoshannah Shear, an experienced OT who has also worked in several acute care settings. We created an e-book that not only covers interventions, but also the “must-know” concepts for any acute care OT or COTA starting out.


If you’re an acute care OT, I would love to learn what your acute care must-haves are that aren’t on the list. Please leave your favorites in the comments below, and please share this article if you found it helpful!

This post was originally published on April 14, 2017 and updated on May 19, 2021.

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