Since April is Occupational Therapy Month, I wanted to take the opportunity to promote my profession by sharing my thoughts on the unique and valuable skills that OT’s bring to the health care field.
I can honestly say that I don’t remember how I decided on occupational therapy as a profession. It may have come up as a suggestion on one of those “what jobs are you best suited for” tests in high school. I really don’t remember. But I made the decision while still in high school and only applied to colleges that had OT programs that I hoped to be accepted to.
OT school was, and still is, a pretty grueling experience for most people. It’s a competitive process to be accepted in to a program, and it’s a rigorous science and psychology-based curriculum once you are. The program is then followed by 6 months of supervised clinical fieldwork (internships) that you have to pass before you can sit for the OT boards. Passing that exam allows you to apply for a state license to practice. Keeping your state license requires ongoing continuing education (among other things).
As I reflect back on close to 20 years in clinical practice as an OT, I’ll admit that there were times when I questioned whether I made the right career choice. Working in the health care industry is challenging for a lot of reasons, and maintaining your professional passion can be difficult at times. But there have been a few memorable experiences along the way that reminded me that I did make the right choice.
An example: Almost 15 years ago, I interviewed for a job with a company that provided on-site therapy services at a large manufacturing plant. I had recently left a very stressful clinic job and was hoping to find a job that would allow me to continue to grow professionally while feeling valued for my specialized clinical skills.
After a rather odd interview experience with the owners of the company, they contacted me and said that they had decided to offer me a job. However, the way they phrased it was “You’re just an OT, but we think we can probably train you to be a PT”. After hearing that, I politely declined their offer.
There is definitely some overlap in the skill sets of OT’s and PT’s. We start out in school together but eventually separate to focus on our profession-specific training. I have a lot of colleagues and friends who are PT’s, and I admire the unique skills that they possess. But an OT is not a less valuable or less skilled version of a PT. And a company that doesn’t see the value in each is certainly not one I wanted to work for.
In addition to that company’s job offer being insulting professionally, the comment has stuck with me because throughout my career, I have often had to explain to people what an OT does. I know that many of my OT friends have too. In a recent post, I wrote about the question that every OT likely answers on a regular basis: What is occupational therapy? You can read my answer here.
The short answer is that occupational therapists are trained to use therapeutic activities to help their clients return to necessary and meaningful activities of daily life. The treatment will vary based on the age of a client and the type of injury or illness he or she has experienced, but the goal is the same – to allow people to fully participate in their daily activities. I have chosen to specialize in pain management, ergonomics, and a lifestyle-based approach to disease management. But I have other OT friends who specialize in hand therapy, pediatrics, and mental health. And that doesn’t even cover all of the practice areas that we are trained to work in.
So why am I ok with being “just an OT”? The comment was assumedly meant as a professional slight, but I actually think anyone who doesn’t understand the value of an experienced OT is missing out. In my opinion, having a skill set that is hard to define succinctly means that OT’s are good at a lot of things and that we can apply our skills to more patient populations than most other health care professionals can. We’re trained extensively in both the physiological and emotional aspects of health, so OT’s bring some of the most holistic patient care skills to the health care field of any profession.
We’re trained to use a client-centered approach and focus on what goals and activities are meaningful to our clients. I think that the rest of the medical field is (slowly) moving in that direction, but OT’s have always done that. We already know how to develop meaningful therapeutic relationships with our clients as a way to help them. We focus on how to help them take control of their own health so that they can participate in their lives in the ways that keep them healthy and happy.
It’s a rewarding profession with almost endless possibilities for how to apply our clinical skills to improve the lives of people in need.
So am I “just an OT”? Yes. And I consider that a compliment.