Top Career Paths in Outpatient Occupational Therapy
When I was discovering occupational therapy as a career, I was very familiar with what occupational therapists did in inpatient rehab settings since I worked as an aide in one, and I was aware that OTs also worked with children in schools.
I’d heard of occupational therapists working in patients’ home settings as well, but looking back, I really didn’t know anything about this whole other range of OT:
Outpatient Occupational Therapy
So if you want to be an occupational therapist but you aren’t really familiar with the types of outpatient occupational therapy settings, this article is just for you!
We’ll go into the different types of outpatient OT settings (both adult outpatient occupational therapy and pediatric outpatient occupational therapy) so you can get a handle on what outpatient OT is all about.
The Types of Outpatient Occupational Therapy
I want to start off by again mentioning that there isn’t just “one” outpatient occupational therapy setting. There are multiple types of outpatient OT, for multiple age ranges and patient populations, so we’ll go through each one briefly here.
It’s important to note that the main goals for any outpatient setting are similar to other occupational therapy settings: to help clients from all ages do the things they want to do and need to do in their day to day life. Of course, this is going to look a bit different depending on the setting as you’ll see below.
This is one of the most well-known outpatient OT settings since it encompasses hand therapy and therapy of the rest of the upper extremity like the wrist, elbow and shoulder. Therapists here will evaluate and treat upper extremity injuries or disorders through interventions like manual therapy, therapeutic exercise, modality use, education and/or orthotic fabrication.
This outpatient setting is where you’ll find Certified Hand Therapists, but you don’t always have to have your CHT certification to work in this setting. This is typically a very fast-paced outpatient setting where you may see several patients at a time throughout the day.
For more about this setting, be sure to check out our Hand Therapy Day in the Life article featuring Emi Ito, OTR/L, CHT.
Outpatient Neurological Therapy
Outpatient neurological therapy is an outpatient setting where OTs work with adult clients with a new or existing neurological impairment. Diagnoses can include stroke, brain injury, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, and other neurological impairments that have caused a decline in function.
Therapists here will commonly address cognition, vision, fine/gross motor coordination, strengthening and self-care tasks to improve a patient’s independence as much as possible.
Unlike with orthopedics, which are often quicker healing times, occupational therapists can work with their neuro patients for months if needed, as the recovery process may be over a longer period.
To learn more about this setting, be sure to also check out outpatient neuro OT Renee Leuschke, OTR/L’s Day in the Life.
Outpatient Pediatric Occupational Therapy
Pediatric occupational therapy in outpatient pediatric clinics focuses on evaluating and treating infants, toddlers and children in a specialized outpatient clinic. Typical diagnoses OTs work with here can include sensory processing disorder, autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, ADHD, or delayed developmental milestones that impact’s a child’s function with their daily activities.
Interventions in outpatient pediatric OT often include fine and gross motor coordination activities, sensory-based interventions, feeding interventions, handwriting, behavior management, equipment recommendations, and parent/caregiver education. Like almost every other OT setting, OTs here will also address activities of daily living like dressing, grooming, self-feeding and toileting.
Outpatient Driving Rehab
A less common OT outpatient setting is driving rehabilitation. Perfect for occupational therapists due to our holistic training, driving rehab specialists help ensure adults stay safe when driving. This is done by assessing possible deficit areas of potentially at-risk drivers like attention, visual-perceptual deficits, cognition, safety awareness and any physical factors that could affect a driver’s safety.
Along with going through in-office assessments and addressing deficit areas through intervention or modifications, driving specialists will also complete on the road testing with clients (as indicated) to fully ensure the individual is safe. If a client is deemed no longer safe to drive, they will be educated on alternative means of transportation to maintain as much autonomy as possible.
To learn more about working in driving rehab, check out our article Occupational Therapy’s Role in Driver Rehabilitation.
Outpatient Mental Health
While working in mental health as an OT is less common in the U.S. compared to some other countries, it is an important setting and there are still opportunities to work in it. Treatment in outpatient mental health OT is focused on the recovery model which “acknowledges that recovery is a long-term process, with the ultimate goal being full participation in community activities” (AOTA). This is a little different from the traditional medical model.
Diagnoses can include PTSD, depression, anxiety, ADHD, schizophrenia, adult sensory processing disorder, dementia and other disorders affecting a person’s mental health and function in daily life.
Typical outpatient mental health settings can be in freestanding mental health centers, hospitals, shelters, correctional facilities, clubhouses or they can involve working with clients directly in the community.
Workplace ergonomics is also a smaller outpatient OT niche (with only 2% of OTs working in this setting!) but it is a very important industry nonetheless. This setting involves planning, designing and creating a safe work environment that enhances employee productivity and capability through creating proper workplace set-ups to reduce employee injuries. Ergonomics OTs also plan and lead well-being programs with an ergonomic focus to educate employees about proper ergonomics.
OTs will often visit workplaces to evaluate and recommend equipment to maximize employee safety and comfort. For more about this setting, see our related articles by ergonomics OT Kirsten Beshay, OTR/L about the 10 Steps to Get a Job in Ergonomics and her Day in the Life of an Ergonomics Occupational Therapist.
Mobile Outpatient Occupational Therapy
This setting was actually my first setting as a new occupational therapist and is becoming more and more common. Mobile outpatient OT can look similar to home health but with the added benefit of being able to do treatments anywhere. With mobile outpatient OT (or “therapy on wheels” as it’s sometimes called), you can work with clients wherever they need to be, whether it’s at home, work or out in the community.
When working with a mobile outpatient therapy company, you can work with adults or children, and see essentially any diagnosis that affects a person’s activities of daily living. Therapists in this setting enjoy the greater autonomy with treatments, but it may not be the best setting for brand-new grads since you’ll be on your own throughout the day.
Want to be an Outpatient Occupational Therapist?
If any of these settings interest you, here are a few tips to help you get started in these settings, whether you’re in school or already are practicing OT!
In School? Try to Get an Outpatient Level II Fieldwork Placement
If you’re still in OT school, try to work with your program on getting one Level II Fieldwork in the outpatient setting you’re interested in. Therapy hiring managers love to see new grads applying to a setting that they had a Level II Fieldwork in for added experience.
You’ll have a leg up on other new grads that don’t have any experience in the setting, and you’ll definitely feel more comfortable than if it’s a brand new setting for you. I recommend this for any OT career path you’re interested in, not just outpatient!
Since outpatient OT settings can be more autonomous and fast-paced, I also really recommend inquiring about on-site mentorship or if you’ll have a few OTs working alongside you to learn from and bounce ideas off of.
If You’re Already a Practicing OT
Whether you’ve been practicing for a few years or have a whole career in inpatient settings, switching to an outpatient setting is still easily achievable! The versatility of our field is one of my favorite aspects of OT.
If you don’t have any experience working in the outpatient setting of your choice, you can show your potential job prospects you’re serious by taking enough continuing education on the patient population ahead of time.
I recommend several in-person courses if they’re in your budget, and then adding in multiple online courses in your desired specialty so you can feel more confident once you start.
I personally use and recommend MedBridge Online Continuing Education since they cover all OT settings and are AOTA-accredited. You can save $150 off your unlimited yearly courses using the promo code MYOTSPOT.
Whatever continuing education courses you choose, be sure to mention how many you’ve taken during your outpatient interviews to show your interviewer that you’ve had some preparation before you jump in.
Along with taking relevant continuing ed courses, you can also pick up a part time or PRN job in one of these settings to see how you like it before jumping into it full time.
No Matter Your Career Stage, Don’t Forget to Network!
Some of these outpatient settings may be harder to get into than others due to the job supply. But with each one, you can get a head start by networking with therapists already working in the setting.
You can do this by attending setting-specific meetups, conferences, and courses while making an effort to introduce yourself to as many OTs in your desired setting as you can. This way, if a position opens up, you’ll have a greater chance to find out early while also already knowing someone that can recommend you. LinkedIn is another great way to connect with OTs and hiring managers in these settings.
Lastly, OT jobs can come and go quickly, so don’t forget to also check online job boards regularly and apply early and often.
I hope this gives you a good overview of all of the different outpatient occupational therapy settings! If I forgot to mention any, please feel free to add them into the comments below!
This post was originally published on September 22, 2020 and last updated on December 2, 2023.