What Exactly Is Occupational Therapy?
If you’re an occupational therapist, you are likely destined to forever answer the question, “So what exactly is occupational therapy?”
The old joke from patients goes, “But I don’t need a job!” And while I have only heard that come out of a patient’s mouth a couple of times in over a decade of clinical work, I often need to advocate for myself on what my services can provide and how they can benefit someone.
Knowledge regarding the profession has definitely increased in recent years, maybe as an increasing number of older adults or children receive services and their families learn about the field of occupational therapy.
Whichever is the case, I’m glad for the continued recognition of our skills, but I think there is still a strong need for education in the general public on the true broad scope of our practice. AOTA defines occupational therapy as “the only profession that helps people across the lifespan to do the things they want and need to do” as well as “[enabling] people of all ages to live life to its fullest by helping them promote health, and prevent…injury, illness, or disability.”
While that has become our general go-to statement of services when prompted, it doesn’t provide potential consumers a good idea regarding what they will experience during OT intervention.
In general, our scope of practice can include addressing self-care and home task independence, strength, range of motion, balance, coordination, vision, functional cognition, wellness and leisure.
We work with people of all ages who may have the above mentioned physical, cognitive, or emotional challenges that prevent them from participating in meaningful and important activities.
Without putting us into a clinical services box, we’ll go through what exactly we do as occupational therapists and how we address the areas that AOTA highlights.
Do The Things People Want To Do
What do any of us want to do? We want to take care of ourselves and our families as needed. We want to participate in community and social experiences. We want to enjoy our life and have the opportunity to complete activities that contribute to our happiness and joy.
The idea of taking care of ourselves or others is a cornerstone of occupational therapy and basically alludes to functional independence. We are pros in this area as we address basic self care tasks (ADLs) such as dressing and toileting independently and provide training and recommendations regarding the use of equipment to improve the ability to complete these tasks independently.
Typical home tasks (IADLs) are often a significant part of OT as well, as we help people return to not only cooking, cleaning, laundry, and taking care of kids/parents/pets, but tasks such as paying bills, tracking finances, managing appointments, signing a signature on required documentation, shopping online, etc.
Community participation is a valued part of an individual’s life. As occupational therapists, we work to improve skills required by our patients to return to driving safely so that they can go where they need to go. Most of us enjoy going out to eat or to the movies on occasion. If an individual wants to go to a restaurant but is nervous about sliding in and out of a booth or having to use a public restroom stall, an OT can help work toward improving the strength required to successfully transfer on and off lower surfaces.
Leisure is often discussed between patients and their OTs. While insurance companies don’t really care if an individual improves grip strength, for example, in order to return to playing golf (or another leisure activity), I can assure you that OTs care about the ability to participate in a much-loved occupation.
And my guess is if a physical impairment is preventing you from returning to golf, it is most likely inhibiting your ability to complete a daily functional task as well (which would therefore justify OT treatment). Working on upper body movement and strength can also assist with returning to playing with an individual’s children or grandchildren.
Occupational therapists are excellent at providing education, and this is the area that I think is a little more vague and potentially not as often-addressed during OT intervention as it could be. AOTA incorporates health promotion with the education provided during intervention to keep people feeling and functioning at their best.
Per AOTA, community-based health promotion also expands on this, providing community-based fall prevention programs for seniors, stress and anger management programs, or back-pack safety to prevent injury from heavy loads.
Where I see health promotion coming more in to play in the typical clinical setting is through mindfulness training and education, a rising area in which occupational therapists are well-suited to address. If you want to learn more about mindfulness and OT, be sure to check out our article, Mindfulness As Part of the Occupational Therapy Scope of Practice.
Prevent Injury, Illness, or Disability
As occupational therapists, we help prevent injury, illness, or disability by improving range of motion, strength, and coordination; decreasing pain; and providing prevention education (such as ergonomic training) as well as progressive exercise programs. Strong muscles help us do the tasks we need to do while minimizing the risk of injury.
Though we most often see patients following a new injury or diagnosis, we still use the opportunity to provide education to keep an individual as safe and healthy as possible from that point forward.
What is occupational therapy to you and how do you define the profession to others? I hear patients often comment that they enjoy seeing several of our clinicians during their course of treatment, mentioning that, “you each do things a little differently.”
I think this comment shows truly that though we all have the same foundation, OT offers us the opportunity to creatively develop who we are as clinicians and place our “spin” on the services we provide.
That being said, if you’re an OT practitioner, please share in the comments your definition and “elevator pitch” on how you describe what occupational therapy is.
And if you’re not an OT but you are still curious about what occupational therapy can do for you or your loved one, be sure to check out our other article, “What are the Main Benefits of Occupational Therapy?” to learn even more.
This article was co-written by Renee Leuschke OTR/L and Sarah Stromsdorfer, OTR/L. It was originally published on March 30, 2020 and updated on April 15, 2023.