Mayo Clinic occupational therapist assisting a patient

What does an occupational therapist do?

An occupational therapist works with patients who have conditions that are mentally, physically, developmentally, or emotionally disabling. They help these patients develop, recover, or maintain the skills needed for daily living and working.

The goal of an occupational therapist is to help patients with medical issues and complications to live more independently. Therapists are skilled in the social, emotional, and physical effects of an illness, injury, or disability. In doing so they may plan treatment programs and teach patients how to use adaptive equipment.

Scope of practice

Occupational therapists work with doctors, nurses, and occupational therapy assistants to treat patients of all ages, from infants to the elderly. Common tasks and duties include:

  • Evaluating patients and determining goals for treatment
  • Customizing treatment to each patient’s current ability and goals
  • Re-evaluating patients to ensure goals are being met
  • Adjusting treatment plans to reflect changes in ability

Specializations

Occupational therapists can seek specialty certifications from the American Occupational Therapy Association, including:

  • Gerontology
  • Pediatrics
  • Specialization in type of therapy such as vision loss or hearing loss
  • Environmental modification

Work environment

Occupational therapists work in hospitals, rehabilitation hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, offices and clinics, school systems, nursing homes, and home health agencies. They typically work 40-hour weeks during daytime hours. Evenings, weekends, and holiday work isn’t very common. Occupational therapists work most of their hours on their feet while treating their patients.

Becoming an occupational therapist

Individuals interested in becoming an occupational therapist typically have excellent communication and interpersonal skills. They are very compassionate, patient people with a desire to help others improve their lives. High school students would set themselves up for success by taking science and communication courses, and spending time volunteering helping children or the elderly.

Higher education requirements

Occupational therapists need to obtain a bachelor’s degree which can be any major but is typically biology, psychology, sociology, kinesiology, or a health science major as certain prerequisite courses are required for admission to graduate school.

  • Master’s degree program in occupational therapy
  • Optional doctoral program in occupational therapy

There are some programs that combine the bachelor’s and master’s degree into one occupational therapy program that can be completed in a total of five years.

Certification process

After completing your graduate-level occupational therapy program, you must pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam in order to become certified as an occupational therapist. Occupational therapists are required to complete continuing education credits each year to keep their license current.

Career opportunities and outlook

Occupational therapists can expect a median annual salary of $83,000.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects job openings for occupational therapists in the U.S. to grow much faster than average. This is due to the growth in the number of people with disabilities who require therapy services and as the large baby-boom generation ages and remain active later in life. There is also an employment growth in schools that need therapists to serve children with disabilities.

With additional training and experience, some occupational therapists move into management roles with more responsibilities or start their own practices. Some therapists complete a doctorate degree and become professors while others earn specializations to increase career opportunities.

By the numbers

Occupational therapist programs at Mayo Clinic

Mayo Clinic offers several occupational therapy programs to prepare students for a career as an occupational therapist, including:

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