Modern occupational therapy as a profession is well over a hundred years old; it was born of the need to treat the physical and mental injuries of soldiers returning from World War I. Subsequent crises—World War II, the polio epidemic—confirmed the persistent need for this essential healthcare service, a need that has, unfortunately, not subsequently waned.
Over the years, the occupational therapy profession developed creative and innovative evidence-based practices, improving peoples' lives by helping them regain their independence and quality of life through physical movement and practice of everyday activities.
One of the challenges that occupational therapists face is how to provide the most effective, evidence-based treatment plans to improve a patient's progress and well-being in both physical and mental health. Occupational therapists are tasked with committing to ongoing change and progress. This means staying on top of the latest innovations and knowing the newest approaches to practice. There is a lot of material to master, which is why effective and successful OTs must commit to lifelong learning in their profession.
In addition to lifelong learning, what are the qualities you need to be an occupational therapist? We answer this question, as well as:
We'll start with the obvious: you need the requisite professional training to earn a license and practice occupational therapy. And, you have to continue to pursue certifications in areas you find meaningful in your own OT practice and be committed to continuing your education.
What are the other qualities you'll need to be a successful occupational therapist? What else should you have in your OT toolkit?
One of the most important qualities you'll need as an occupational therapist is strong communication skills. To coordinate care, practitioners need to communicate clearly and effectively with their clients and also with the client's family, caregivers, and other members of the larger healthcare team. Sometimes this means being able to observe non-verbal cues and help translate a client's concerns and definition of independence into a beneficial treatment plan. In other instances, it means being able to relay instructions for occupations and activities to people of different ages and abilities.
In addition to strong verbal communication skills, clear, complete, and organized writing is critical for accurate record-keeping and tracking and sharing information on program plans, activity instructions, and client progress. Being a skilled and effective writer also eliminates misunderstandings among the OT, caregivers, and concerned family members.
Problem-solving is a big part of an occupational therapist's job description. It is the approach these healthcare professionals use to find effective and impactful interventions. Clients can present unique and challenging issues—an injury, illness, or disability—and a good occupational therapist can use their know-how to make creative and tailored treatment plans and work through challenges in a client's mindset or environment.
Knowing how to change course, in both big and small ways, can make a big difference in occupational therapists’ interventions with their clients. Communicating and assessing progress daily allows for existing occupational therapy services and daily activities to be revised to reflect progress, setbacks, and new goals.
Keen cognitive skills are necessary for remembering, analyzing, assessing, and applying the knowledge of OT theory to professional practice. Occupational therapy practitioners commit to life-long learning and need to process lots of new information, evolving theories, models, and frameworks— and incorporate all of it into each new and personalized treatment plan.
Occupational therapy is a hands-on profession that involves close contact and interaction between clients and therapists. To foster trust, a good occupational therapist demonstrates empathy, patience, and kindness—even in the face of a client's resistance or frustration. Providing steady, reliable, and consistent support, under stress and sometimes during years-long treatment plans, enables growth and progress.
There is a high level of physicality involved in occupational therapy work that can vary depending on your area of specialization. As part of their treatment plans, therapists may need to assist some clients in transferring to and from beds and wheelchairs, positioning and enabling mobility, using adaptive equipment, and assisting with the activities of daily living (ADLs).
All occupational and physical therapy involves teamwork and collaboration among an occupational therapist, occupational therapy assistant (OTA), physical therapists, and physicians in hospitals, or with home health care workers in outpatient settings. This collaboration results in the most impactful care. Quality treatment relies on a healthcare team sharing ideas and giving and receiving feedback about what is working, what isn't, and how to best improve a client's quality of life.
If you have these skills and qualities, you've got a lot of what it takes to find success as an occupational therapist. But you'll also need a a master's in occupational therapy from an accredited school to practice. All OT master's and doctoral programs in the US are regulated by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE).
After graduation, you also must pass the National Board of Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) examination to earn your license.
The quickest way to get your Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) or Master of Science in Occupational Therapy (MSOT) degree is in a full-time, two-year program. There are part-time tracks for students who cannot earn their degree on a full-time basis.
Because of the oversight and regulation of ACOTE, most OT schools follow similar admissions guidelines. You'll need to have completed your bachelor's degree in occupational therapy or a related health science degree with coursework in human anatomy, behavioral science, human development over a lifespan, abnormal psychology, and statistics.
You'll also need to provide transcripts from all schools you've attended showing a 3.0 or greater GPA, documentation of at least 20 hours of fieldwork or work hours, three or more letters of recommendation from supervisors and/or professors, and a personal statement of purpose.
Be aware that the Occupational Therapist Centralized Application Service (OTCAS) serves as a common application and is accepted by most occupational therapy programs.
Coursework for most master's in occupational therapy programs includes functional anatomy, clinical and professional reasoning, therapeutic approaches, outcome measurements, assessment in occupational therapy, assistive technology, mental and behavioral health, biomechanical and neurorehabilitation theory and practice. Clinical work with patients is a big piece of the MOT/MSOT curriculum, so on-site fieldwork takes place alongside coursework.
Whether you decide on in-patient care in a hospital or clinical setting or to work in private practice, you'll begin to explore specializations after graduation. Certifications can be obtained through the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) in areas like pediatrics, autism spectrum disorders, traumatic brain injury, speech therapy, geriatrics, and research.
There are excellent occupational therapy master's programs across the US- some of them include:
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