Top Career Paths in Outpatient Occupational Therapy
When I was discovering occupational therapy as a career, I was super familiar with what occupational therapists did in inpatient rehab settings, and was somewhat aware that OTs worked with kids 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 type of OT:
Outpatient Occupational Therapy
So if you want to be an OT and you aren’t really familiar with the outpatient setting, this article is just for you!
We’ll go into the different types of outpatient OT settings so you can get a handle on what outpatient OT is all about. We’ll also discuss how you can land an outpatient OT job after graduation.
Types of Outpatient OT
I want to start off by sharing there isn’t just “one” outpatient occupational therapy setting. There are multiple types 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. It’s typically a very fast-paced 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 featuring Emi Ito, OTR/L, CHT.
Outpatient Neurological Therapy
Outpatient neurological therapy is a 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 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, OTs 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 neuro OT Renee Leuschke’s Day in the Life.
Outpatient Pediatric Occupational Therapy
Pediatric occupational therapy in outpatient 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 often include fine and gross motor coordination activities, handwriting, behavior management, equipment recommendations, and parent/caregiver education. Like other settings, OTs 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 rehab. Perfect for OTs, 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 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 do on the road testing 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, check out AOTA’s Role of OT in Driving Rehab.
Outpatient Mental Health
While working in mental health as an OT is less common in the U.S., it’s an important setting and there are still opportunities to work in it. Treatment 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, schizophrenia, 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 can involve working with clients directly in the community.
Workplace ergonomics is also a smaller outpatient OT niche but is an important industry nonetheless. This setting involves planning, designing and creating a safe work environment that enhances employee productivity and capability through creating proper physical facilities to reduce employee injuries.
OTs will often visit workplaces to evaluate and recommend equipment to maximize employee safety and comfort. For more about this setting, see AOTA’s article on Ergonomics and Occupational Therapy.
Mobile Outpatient Occupational Therapy
This setting was actually my first setting as a new OT grad and is becoming more and more common. It 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 a 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 experience in the setting, and you’ll definitely feel more comfortable than if it’s a totally new setting for you. I recommend this for any OT career path you’re interested in, not just outpatient!
Since outpatient 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 non-outpatient settings, switching to an outpatient setting is definitely still 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.
You can certainly take in-person courses if they’re in your budget, but I also recommend taking several 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 $175 off your unlimited yearly courses using the promo code MYOTSPOT.
Whatever continuing ed method 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 continuing ed, 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 settings may be harder to land 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 any, please feel free to add them into the comments below 🙂