How to Score a Career as an International Occupational Therapist

As occupational therapists, we are instructed to constantly think outside of the box when coordinating and designing therapy intervention.

We come to better understand our patients/clients if we strongly acknowledge our patient’s goals and lifestyle needs within their environment. However, we are unable to fully comprehend individuals’ lifestyles and cultural influences by sitting in one clinical office for the entirety of our careers.

If you want to take the next step to – not only think – but LIVE outside the box, there is no better way than to be an international occupational therapist.

Working as an occupational therapist internationally can have a positive influence in many circumstances. These could include refugee resettlement and rehabilitation, disaster management, human trafficking, political activity and advocacy, vocational training, teaching opportunities, and research (www.wfot.org).

Therapists who are interested in overseas clinical work are expected to stretch themselves in more ways than one. This means putting away the Theraband and daily modality treatments and exposing themselves to leadership and advocacy opportunities.

Occupational therapy opportunities around the world are endless…

But where do you start?

If you have a desire to pursue an international career, keep reading for a list of examples and resources.

Fieldwork opportunities:

If you’re interested in doing something international while you’re still in school, there may be opportunities to do fieldwork in another country. Some OT programs will offer shorter one or two week trips abroad to experience OT in another country. It is the best way to experiment with travel and to see if you would like to work overseas in the long-run.

Some students are fortunate enough to attend prestigious programs that have accessible study-abroad opportunities. Others may have to work a little harder and assist in creating those programs themselves. If your program is lacking international opportunities, you as the student may have to advocate for those programs to be established.

For example, three OT students expressed interest in participating in a Level I fieldwork in Perth, Australia. However, their program did not have a fieldwork agenda established with Australia.

Starting in their first year of schooling, they petitioned for a contract with the fieldwork coordinator. It took two years, but with some perseverance, the fieldwork coordinator was able to create a contract with the Multiple Sclerosis Society. The students were sent out for a two-week fieldwork experience which included writing grants and researching adaptive equipment resources for clients in Perth. The contract continued with future students for the next two years.

Refer to AOTA’s resources for international fieldwork.

Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs):

The next scenario is also based on a real-world fieldwork experience.

A third-year occupational therapy student wanted to go all-out for her last Level I fieldwork. Instead of completing her fieldwork locally, she asked her professors about using an upcoming study-abroad opportunity and converting it into a fieldwork. After obtaining permission from the school, she joined a non-governmental community group funded by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and traveled to two refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border. While there, she conducted pediatric OT presentations for the camp rehabilitation group.

NGOs are constantly traveling around the world to assist groups with needs of a wide variety, including medical and rehabilitative needs. Students and clinicians just need to do a bit of research online and visit local organizations to see if there are current opportunities for OTs to serve internationally.

AOTA’s OT Connections has an International forum where opportunities are often posted.

Grant programs:

For those out of school and practicing, you may be interested to know there are grant programs available for OTs.

These are usually programs outside of NGOs and mainly refer to OTs who are willing to go out on their own and create the program themselves. Clinicians can seek out and apply for federal grants to establish their own therapy programs worldwide.

Examples include wheelchair assessment/fitting programs, educational forums for local rehabilitation groups, etc. In many ways, it is like trying to create and own a company.

Obtaining funding and establishing an international program takes a lot of time and work. However, if you are a therapist that can see a unique need for a group somewhere in the world that no one else is addressing, starting from the ground up might just suit you.

Projects Abroad in Occupational Therapy:

Projects Abroad started in the 1990s and has flourished as an organization that provides international work opportunities for countless professions.

Recently, Projects Abroad has posted several, short-term international projects located in Kenya, Cambodia, Tanzania, and Morocco. Occupational therapists would be sent out for up to 2 weeks to work in hospital settings, schools, and care centers to provide care.

Short-term projects are perfect for individuals who would like to travel internationally, but not have to dedicate their lives to being away from their home country.

World Federation of Occupational Therapists (WFOT):

The WFOT is recognized as a non-governmental organization (NGO) that specifically promotes OT on an international level. There are currently 92 member organizations around the world, and the WFOT assists qualified therapists in finding work outside of their own country.

Their website has constant updates about current job positions, research positions, and volunteer opportunities for clinicians.

World Endeavors:

World Endeavors is an organization that provides study abroad opportunities for OT students. Current placement opportunities include Australia, Thailand, South Africa, Italy, Ireland, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. Depending on the location, students will work alongside OTs in school settings, hospitals, or care centers.

Online Job Searches:

Simply searching the internet will prove to be an amazing way to find available positions anywhere in the world. For those who really want to make a vastly different career change, simply hop onto Google for a couple of hours and research available overseas positions.

Review contract durations and qualifications (including any language requirements). Make sure that whatever country you desire to work in is part of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the WFOT.

Some countries do not recognize occupational therapy as a profession, therefore, you will not get paid as one. For those who do wish to work internationally, but want some semblance of home, you can also look into military base positions.

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Pursuing an occupational therapy career in international work is a great way to round out your knowledge of individuals from hundreds of different backgrounds. Therapists come back home with a wider perspective on people and what makes them tick, what makes them function successfully, and how their culture and environment have influenced them over time.

Have you taken the plunge into occupational therapy internationally? Please share your experiences in the comments below!

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