Alternative Career Paths for Occupational Therapists
If you’ve landed on this article, you may be currently wondering, “What else can I do with my occupational therapy degree that is not direct patient care?” or are looking into non-clinical occupational therapy job options.
Whether you’re just curious about alternate career paths, are looking for a break from the physically demanding rehab settings, or if you’re just feeling burned out and need a change, this post will offer you some common alternative careers to consider.
The wonderful thing about being an occupational therapist or COTA is that our education and experience is so versatile, but it can be hard to know exactly where to turn if you want to do something out of the norm. These alternative career ideas come from an array of different conversations that I’ve been a part of with other OTs at work and online.
This list of is certainly not exhaustive (as there are SO many options in this realm), but it should at least get the wheels turning!
Business Owner/OT Entrepreneur
Some people are born to be entrepreneurs. If you have big ideas, energy, a passion for creating something from nothing, and you have the drive to creatively bring value to the world, you might have what it takes to start and grow your own OT business. Here are several types of OT-related businesses you can create.
Start a Private Practice
The first thing that often comes to mind on this front is starting your own private practice.
Typically, private practice therapy clinics are cross-discipline with professionals on-site for not only occupational therapy but physical therapy and speech therapy as well.
There are some clinics that focus solely on occupational therapy, and these are typically in the pediatric and hand-therapy disciplines.
I’m also now seeing occupational therapists starting their own chronic pain clinics (which I think is great; I go to a chronic pain OT myself and love her practice). There are also other holistic avenues you can take when starting your own private practice.
The best part about being an OT entrepreneur is that you have the freedom to choose what you’re most passionate about.
If you’re ready to start your own practice, WebPT has put together a great resource about starting a therapy clinic from scratch. While written for a physical therapy clinic, their model can certainly be followed for starting any type of therapy clinic. The guide helps you think through key questions to get your business off the ground like should you have a specialty, what equipment should you buy, and what’s the best way to manage operations?
Corporate Health Consulting
Jouyin Teoh, an Occupational Therapist in Malaysia, ran a private practice working with clients to help them start a weight loss journey and understand good habits and strategies that benefit their health.
She has since moved on to academia, but her business helped companies come up with strategies to coach individuals on setting up their life and environment in a way that is conducive to healthy living.
Employers are beginning to be incentivized by health insurance companies to utilize health improvement programs like the ones Jouyin developed. Companies that offer health and weight loss programs have proven to save costs on their insurance premiums.
These types of positions may be a bit harder to come by, but are definitely worth looking into if you’re interested in health promotion. If you are, be sure to read AOTA’s position on OT’s role in health promotion for some added insight.
Private Health Coaching
Many OTs and COTAs have also tied their love of health promotion into starting their own health coaching business that targets people looking to improve their health and well-being. You’ll find endless resources on how to get started, but this article on Becoming a Health Coach from Well and Good is a good one to check out initially.
Who should start an OT business?
Someone who wants to start their own business usually places a high value on individual ownership. There’s something rewarding and fulfilling about building something from nothing and seeing all that hard work pay off over a long period of time.
You have to have an immense drive deep down to be able to put in the time and effort day after day as well as deal with the seemingly never-ending problems that will arise when starting a business.
On this path, the short term satisfaction of getting a steady paycheck with predictable hours is foregone for the long-term prospect of being the owner of a successful and valuable practice. The income potential long-term is far greater, and if set up properly, would allow you to make money even when you’re not at the clinic.
You are also building something that, if profitable, increases in value and could eventually be sold.
Sarah Lyon has also put together an article titled Resources to Start (and Grow) Your Occupational Therapy Business for some additional insight and inspiration.
Home Modification Specialist
Becoming a home modification specialist for aging in place or individuals with new disabilities is another great alternative that OTs are already very knowledgeable about. This is especially true for any home health OTs who have so much first-hand experience.
There may be some small businesses in your area that focus on this specialty which you may be interested in working for or partnering with.
This route may also fall into the category of Business Owner/Entrepreneur as you can certainly start your own Home Modifications business. We’ve even featured a few OTs here at My OT Spot who have done this themselves, like Paige Hays, OTR/L of Beyond Accessibility and Maria Lindbergh, OTR/L of Stay At Home Solutions, so be sure to check them out.
If you’re interested in working with home modifications, be sure to also check out AOTA’s Home Modifications page.
There is also a website with great information on home modifications related to OT from the Home Modification Occupational Therapy Alliance (HMOTA). Their goals are to “promote occupational therapists as leaders in the field of home modifications, develop a lucrative business model for home modification occupational therapists, and increase home modification occupational therapists’ expertise in home modification techniques, technology, equipment and design.”
There are many other resources for home modifications OTs, but these will get you started if you’re interested in this alternative career path.
Medical Equipment Sales
While sales might be somewhat high stress, it can definitely be an interesting change-up to traditional patient care. There are so many types of medical equipment that we work with on a regular basis, like neuro VR programs, e-stim, modalities, dynamic splinting, hospital beds, wheelchairs, and so on.
Almost all medical device and equipment companies have sales representatives that visit hospitals and clinics to market their products to. Basically, if you have a favorite product, get in contact with the company and see if they’re hiring sales reps. You can always Google the company and search their open positions.
For more information about careers in medical sales, check out this post on Monster.com: Pharma, Biotech, Medical-Device Sales: Which Is for You?
Medical Freelance Writer
This option is becoming popular as more and more healthcare websites are popping up daily, and need frequent articles to publish. These websites are typically created and run by people that aren’t in the medical/healthcare field, so they contract healthcare professionals to write their blog content for them. These articles can be related to occupational therapy, but may also involve other medical topics that OTs are familiar with.
If you have a knack for writing and can pump out quality articles quickly that are free from errors, this is can be a flexible option that you can do from your own home.
To get started, Upwork is a great platform that most businesses hire their writers from. For a great perspective on this, check out OT Devon Breithart’s experience as a freelance writer, complete with tips on how get started.
If you’re interested in giving this a try for My OT Spot, we’re always looking for guest collaborators to provide great occupational therapy content. Email me at Sarah@myotspot.com for more information 🙂
First, what is a case manager? Wikipedia’s definition says “Case management is a managed care technique within the health care coverage system of the United States.”
Whether it involves admissions and/or discharges, having experience as an OT can make working as a case manager a perfect fit.
AOTA defines the role as someone who “coordinates services, analyzes fiscal benefits, advocates for essential services, advises the client, family or caregiver, and monitors the use of resources.”
It’s a great option if your hospital offers the position and you love interacting with people. There will certainly be a bit of paperwork involved (as there is with everything in healthcare these days), but you’ll get to see patients’ progress from start to finish and be there with them and the family the whole way.
Read more about being a case manager from an OT perspective here: Statement: The Occupational Therapist as Case Manager.
Assistive Technology Professional
OT’s are perfect for becoming Assistive Technology Professionals since we use it regularly with our patients, whether it’s low tech or high tech assistive technology.
To learn more about becoming a specialist, you can check out the Assistive Technology Association (ATIA) website.
Looking more towards the future, this is an easy field to get excited about, especially when you see things like this in the news: Prosthetic Limbs, Controlled by Thought.
If you’re interested in technology and the advancing future applications, this may be something to think about pursuing long-term as well.
A common career path for occupational therapists after they’ve been in the field for several years or several decades is to go into teaching and/or research at a specific occupational therapy program. There are so many occupational therapy schools that need solid OTs to educate future clinicians.
However, many programs do require their professors having an OTD or PhD, so if this is something you’re really interested in, keep that in mind.
If going back to college to work isn’t your thing, you can also teach continuing education courses around the country in your specialty.
Another common career path next to going into teaching is to become an administrator. Being an administrator, particularly at a hospital, means that you are a manager for therapists over a specific department.
For example, if you are the Inpatient Rehab manager, you are responsible for the work of all PTs, OTs, and SLPs in that department.
Not only are you in charge of scheduling, but you are responsible for coaching therapists about how to become better, intervening in tough situations, keeping everyone motivated, and reporting to higher level management about the productivity and efficiency of your department.
This of course will require more direct hands-on experience, so it may not be not for everyone. Many OTs transition to either rehab department manager or hospital administrator, among other management paths.
Community-Based Mental Health
Working in mental health as an occupational therapist is similar to being a mental health counselor. While there are certainly differences, it will be a helpful starting point to understand your options.
There are several different popular avenues that OTs fit well into.
OTs can be trained in and administer cognitive behavioral therapy to populations in need. If you’re not familiar with this concept, it can be described as a “short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving” according to Psych Central.
Another great option would be to work in vocational rehab in a community-based setting. Here, you’ll get the chance to work one-on-one with individuals, many times veterans, who need help getting back to work. More information can be found on the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
Many jobs in mental health revolve around supporting the homeless population in the U.S. and abroad. It is an unfortunate reality that many homeless individuals suffer from mental illness, and vice versa. There is a huge need to be filled in this arena, and OTs are a great fit to help here as well.
One of the most important independent activities of daily living is being able to get yourself from point A to point B. Whether it’s going to work, the grocery store, doctor’s appointment, or a family member’s house, the most common way to get everywhere is by car.
Patients may become unable to operate a vehicle in situations involving recent amputation, stroke, brain injury, or other neurological impairment. Getting back to driving under these circumstances is not always straightforward and requires the intervention of an OT specialist.
With driving rehab, you are still working with patients but are much more focused on one specific aspect of their life. There is more to it than you might think, and if you’re interested, I’d recommend checking out The Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists.
You may remember studying this briefly for the NBCOT. This is yet another great option to go into if you have a passion for helping people but do not find traditional settings like hospitals a good fit for you personally.
Workstation ergonomics involves a deep understanding of many different facets of a variety of workplace environments. As an ergonomic specialist, you’ll spend time identifying environmental risks, coming up with creative strategies to reduce those risks, educating others on the importance of ergonomics, and drafting comprehensive plans for businesses to follow.
Areas of focus include office ergonomics, production ergonomics, musculo-skeletal injury prevention, general health and wellness promotion.
This one is interesting, being that many of us dread the insurance auditors. However, being an occupational therapist, we are able to effectively decipher other therapists’ notes and determine the necessity of the treatments being billed.
Many times, insurance and Medicare auditors don’t really understand the interventions we’re providing. Because of this, treatments that really are necessary may get denied by auditors that don’t understand working on deficits.
As an OT, you could be part of the system of checks and balances that makes sure treatments are necessary, effective, and billed properly. This is such an important aspect to occupational therapy overall and in keeping our profession accountable and responsible now and into the future.
Low Vision Specialist
In 2011, AOTA identified the low vision specialty as an “emerging niche.” A big part of the reason for this focus area growing is the fact that the U.S. and many other developed nations are facing a large aging population in the coming decades.
According to AOTA’s article about low vision:
“Many older adults experience age-related vision changes that can’t be corrected with eyeglasses, contact lenses, or surgery. Occupational therapy practitioners help people with low vision function at the highest possible level by preventing accidents and injury (e.g., improving lighting), teaching new skills (e.g., eccentric viewing, visual tracking), modifying the task or environment (e.g., recommending magnifiers), and promoting a healthy lifestyle (e.g., ensuring they can participate in their daily activities).”
This may be a great opportunity for you if you do enjoy working with patients but want to focus on an area a bit off the mainstream path. AOTA offers a Low Vision certification that you can learn more about here.
For Additional Alternative OT Career Ideas:
The Alternative Careers for Rehabilitation Professionals Facebook group is an active and growing group of over 18,000 members, created for people looking for non-clinical OT career options.
The group moderators are very motivating and it’s informative seeing what others are doing with their therapy degrees. I’m always learning about new avenues from this group, so be sure to join if you’re interested in making a switch.
If you want to try something different in the occupational therapy career space, these are just a few ideas which can help with your brainstorming. While the most obvious and easiest way to use your OT degree is to actually practice in a traditional setting, alternative career paths may be a better fit for you long term.
I hope this post gave you some inspiration and ideas if you’re looking for a change. What other alternative careers for occupational therapists and COTAs would you add to this list?
And if you’re branched out into another non-clinical career path, please share your experiences in the comments below.
This post was originally published May 30th, 2017 and updated on February 29, 2020.