Obligatory “What is OT?” Post

Well, I suppose I should kick things off by explaining what Occupational Therapy is, seeing as how that’s mostly what I’m going to be blogging about.

I think the best way to start is with some examples of people that might seek the services or be referred to an OT:

  • A woman retires from her job of 30 years and has trouble finding things to do during the hours she previously was at work. An OT could help this woman seek other activities that are meaningful to her.
  • A man has a stroke and has lost some speech and/or motor functions. An OT, as part of a rehabilitative health care team, could work on relearning independent skills like communication (note: this is distinct from language, which is the specialty of Speech and Language Pathologists), walking, going to the bathroom, brushing teeth, etc. and activities that the man enjoys.
  • A child is born with cerebral palsy. An OT might be part of his or her health care team, teaching the child essential developmentally-appropriate skills, such as crawling/walking, writing, using their wheelchair or other equipment, etc.
  • A young woman in a car accident is paralyzed from the waist down. An OT could fit them for a wheelchair and teach them proper use and care of the equipment, how to get in and out of the chair (transfers to the toilet, etc), and advise on home adjustments to accommodate the wheelchair.
  • A worker is injured and is having difficulty performing their regular duties. An OT can work with the client to develop a¬†rehabilitation program that practices work-related tasks with gradually increasing difficulty.

Those are just some examples of the variety of people an OT might see. The common theme is that the OT is helping people engage in occupations – that is, anything that is necessary and/or important for them to do. This might include training a different way to do something, how to use a piece of equipment designed to make a task easier, how to design/arrange a home to accommodate a particular disability, how to conserve energy during a task, etc. OTs also have skills in observation and assessment.

Often people confuse OT with physiotherapy (PT; in the US, physical therapy). The biggest difference is that PTs are mainly involved in physical rehabilitation. Though OTs do functional physical rehabilitation, if applicable, an OT is also involved with non-physical interventions and assessments for cognition, mental health, etc. Ideally, all of these tasks and training are related to functional activities that are important to the person’s life in some way. A lot of times, a client will see both an OT and a PT and they will all work closely together as a team. Both PT and OT have a wide variety of applications.

People also can confuse OT with Occupational Health and Safety (OHS). Although most employers have a department such as this, and it may include an OT (but not necessarily), they are not the same thing. OHS refers to work health and safety and, though OTs do help some clients with return-to-work programs and ergonomic injury-prevention techniques/equipment, OT’s purpose isn’t limited to work-related tasks and injuries.

OTs may have a Bachelor of Science or a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy and are required to register nationally (with CAOT) and provincially (with Associations and Colleges – the linked examples are for Nova Scotia). I graduated from the Masters program at Dalhousie University. The curriculum is science- and evidence-based. While I was in this particular program, there was an emphasis on interprofessional communication and collaboration, so the OTs, PTs, and nurses sometimes had classes or labs together to work on simulated patient case files or simulated live client interactions. OT students also do fieldwork placements, working with real clients/patients in various settings under the mentorship of an experienced OT.

I hope that clarified, at least to some degree, what an OT does and what their place is within health care. For more information on occupational therapy (including responsibilities, practice settings, and scope of practice) please see the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists (CAOT) definition and feel free to leave a question or comment.