What Does an Occupational Therapist Do | USAHS (2023)

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do | USAHS (1)

You’ve heard about the field of occupational therapy (OT), but you may not be totally clear on what OTs actually do. In this post, we outline what do occupational therapists do, and—if the profession intrigues you—how you can become an OT.

What Is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy involves hands-on work helping people improve their quality of life by engaging in activities that matter to them. “OTs learn about who you are and help you get back to doing the things that are important to you,” says Dr. Maureen Johnson, PhD, MS, OT/L, an assistant professor of occupational therapy at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS).

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do | USAHS (2)

Occupational therapists are healthcare professionals who help patients maximize fine motor skills. They work with people who have injuries, illnesses, disabilities, or other conditions that affect their ability to perform the activities of daily living (occupations).1

An OT is a healthcare provider that takes activities that are meaningful to the patient and incorporates them into the treatment plan, using them therapeutically to restore function. A therapy session will focus more on functional restoration that may consist of strengthening, performing the task a different way, using adaptive equipment, or modifying the environment to get the job done. This work helps the patient to gain or regain independence, whether they are a child born with developmental delays, a construction worker with a hand injury, or an older adult who has survived a stroke.

(Video) What does an Occupational Therapist Do?

Typically, OTs work in clinical or school settings according to the medical model, with insurance reimbursement. However, there is currently a movement in the field toward working with marginalized people in community-based settings, such as homeless shelters, community mental health sites, and residential facilities. These emerging practice areas are exciting opportunities for OTs, though reimbursement can be challenging.

Occupational therapists’ experiences are as unique as the people they serve. Being an OT gives you the opportunity to work one-on-one with clients to help them return to meaningful activities and improve their lives.

Whom Do Occupational Therapists Treat?

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do | USAHS (3)

Occupational therapists work with individuals throughout their lives in a variety of settings, making sure to address not only the physical impairments associated with an individual’s condition, but also the psychological and cognitive aspects.

For example, a stroke does not just affect the way a person walks, it affects how they think and feel. It can impact the way they eat and bathe, and even their ability to recognize family members. A stroke can change someone’s ability to live alone, drive a car, work at a job, or care for loved ones. Because conditions affect everyone differently, occupational therapists customize treatment for each individual client.

(Video) What is occupational therapy?

Occupational therapists work with people across the lifespan, from infants to adults and seniors. An OT can assist a baby having trouble eating, a child with handwriting difficulties, or a person with schizophrenia who needs help navigating the workforce.

With so many ways they can help people, occupational therapists can choose to specialize in an area and earn a certificate proving their expertise. These specializations include low vision, assistive technology, breastfeeding, caregiver training, driving and community mobility, feeding, pediatrics, hand therapy, physical rehabilitation, mental health, environmental modifications, and school systems.

Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy

Although occupational therapy seems similar at first glance to physical therapy, the two fields are actually quite different. The occupational therapy occupation works holistically with a person to address their physical, mental, and emotional conditions and help them engage better in their daily lives. Physical therapy, on the other hand, is mainly focused on physical movement and healing.

For example, a person who is recovering from a knee surgery would visit a physical therapist for help walking, bending, and putting weight on their knee. A person recovering from a stroke would visit an occupational therapist to learn how to do daily tasks in adaptive ways, such as brushing their teeth and changing clothes.

The main difference between occupational therapy and physical therapy is that physical therapy is mainly focused on reducing pain and restoring movement of the body, while occupational therapy focuses on helping the patient regain independence and confidence while performing activities of daily living and other personally meaningful pursuits. 2

(Video) What is an OT? (Occupational Therapist)

What Does an Occupational Therapist Do | USAHS (4)

Occupational therapy is a growing field. In 2019, there were 143,300 OT jobs, with a 16% projected increase in available jobs through 2029. 2,3

Also in 2019, the median salary for an occupational therapist was $84,950 per year. 4 The lowest 10% of earners earned less than $56,800, while the highest 10% of earners made more than $121,490. An OT’s salary can vary by work schedule, facility, and geographic location.

Hospitals and offices of rehabilitation practitioners were tied as the largest employers of occupational therapists in 2019. However, OTs also found work in schools, home healthcare services, private practice, and nursing care facilities. And many others pursued unconventional practice areas and creative careers.

How to Become an Occupational Therapist

In order to become an occupational therapist, you must complete the following three steps:

(Video) Day at Work: Occupational Therapist

  1. Complete a bachelor’s degree: The first step is to earn a bachelor’s degree in a related field from an accredited institution. While some graduate schools will accept only a bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy, most will accept an undergraduate degree in psychology, kinesiology, biology, health science, sociology, or even liberal arts, provided that prerequisite courses have been completed.
  2. Earn a master’s or doctoral degree in occupational therapy: In order to become a licensed occupational therapist, you finish doctoral programs or at least earn a master’s degree, such as a Master of Occupational Therapy. Master’s programs typically take around two years to complete.* If you want to further your career opportunities, you can opt to earn your Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD). In the additional study time to earn your doctorate, you will get training in research, advocacy, and leadership.
  3. Pass the NBCOT: You will need to pass the National Board of Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam to practice in your state.

Occupational therapy is a profession that’s personal and flexible, depending on the individual OT and the patient. There are opportunities for creativity, growth, and change. OTs use their broad background in science, rehabilitation, and psychology to empower the whole person. 5

If you are interested in learning more about the rewarding profession of OT, we invite you to check out the occupational therapy programs available at USAHS.

The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers hands-on Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) and Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) degrees. Practice with mock patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with patients across the lifespan, as well as advanced roles in research, practice leadership, and policymaking. Residential and Flex (online/weekend) paths are available. We also offer an online Post-Professional Doctor of Occupational Therapy (ppOTD) program designed for working clinicians and healthcare educators, with optional on-campus immersions.**

*The program is designed to be completed in this amount of time; however, the time to completion may vary by student, depending on individual progress, credits transferred, and other factors.

**OT entry-level programs are subject to the accreditation regulations of ACOTE; however, post-professional programs are not under the jurisdiction of ACOTE.

(Video) Occupational Therapist - Is it for me?


  1. American Occupational Therapy Association, “What Is Occupational Therapy?” https://www.aota.org/career/become-an-ot-ota
  2. Healthline, “Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy: What to Know:” https://www.healthline.com/health/occupational-therapy-vs-physical-therapy
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Occupational Therapists,” https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/occupational-therapists.htm
  4. Ibid.
  5. Layne, K., Cremer, K. (2018, December 3). What are occupational therapists and what do they do? The St. Augustine Record. https://www.staugustine.com/section/promotedcontent?prx_t=VFcEAAAAAAxIAQA


What is the main role of an occupational therapist? ›

As an occupational therapist, you'll help people who have difficulties carrying out day-to-day activities because of a disability, illness, trauma, ageing, and a range of long-term conditions.

Why would someone see an occupational therapist? ›

Occupational therapy (OT) is a branch of health care that helps people of all ages who have physical, sensory, or cognitive problems. OT can help them regain independence in all areas of their lives. Occupational therapists help with barriers that affect a person's emotional, social, and physical needs.

What's the difference between an occupational therapist and a regular therapist? ›

The Basic Difference

The most basic difference between physical therapy and occupational therapy is that a PT focuses on improving the patient's ability to move their body whereas an OT focuses on improving the patient's ability to perform activities of daily living.

What is an example of occupational therapy? ›

For example, activities to build fine motor skills might include picking things up with tweezers. Exercises to improve gross motor skills might include jumping jacks or running an obstacle course. For someone who struggles with motor planning, therapists might work on daily routines like getting dressed.

What are the 8 areas of occupational therapy? ›

The broad range of occupations is categorized in the Occupational Therapy Practice Framework (OTPF-4) as activities of daily living, instrumental activities of daily living, health management, rest and sleep, education, work, play, leisure, and social participation.

Can occupational therapists diagnose? ›

Occupational therapists with specialized training can complete both the screening tools as well as the comprehensive testing, and a diagnosis will be made based on the information garnered from all of the testing.

What problems do occupational therapists help with? ›

Occupational therapy can help you with practical tasks if you:
  • are physically disabled.
  • are recovering from an illness or operation.
  • have learning disabilities.
  • have mental health problems.
  • are getting older.

What problems do occupational therapists treat? ›

Who Needs Occupational Therapy?
  • Arthritis and chronic pain.
  • Stroke.
  • Brain injury.
  • Joint replacement.
  • Spinal cord injury.
  • Low vision.
  • Alzheimer's disease.
  • Poor balance.
Jun 22, 2022

What activities do occupational therapists help with? ›

The types of activities occupational therapists help with include sensory skills like making eye contact, gross motor skills like catching and throwing a ball, fine motor skills like using scissors, and self-help skills like dressing and undressing.

When should you see an occupational therapist? ›

If you've a long-term condition affecting your ability to carry out everyday activities, you may be able to access occupational therapy through your local Health and Social Care Partnership (HSCP).

Is an occupational therapist worth it? ›

Summary: OT is a good career because it offers a flexible schedule, comfortable salary and the ability to choose where you work. While it's true you may have to deal with setbacks and manage tough situations, you'll also get to help people and make a difference.

Is occupational therapist mental health? ›

Occupational therapists work with adults and children of all ages who have a wide range of conditions. Most commonly, they help those living with mental health conditions, or physical or learning disabilities.

What are three kinds of activities that occupational therapists use? ›

Parenting 101: What Types of Activities Does an Occupational Therapist Help With?
  • Assisting children with disabilities to participate in school and social settings.
  • Helping children recover from injury to regain skills.
  • Improving their physical and cognitive abilities.

How long is a typical occupational therapy session? ›

The length of therapy/treatment sessions are based on individual needs. A session can be anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour. The typical speech therapy session is 30 minutes, whereas, the typical occupational therapy session is one hour.

What is occupational therapy in simple words? ›

Occupational therapy is the use of occupation to promote health and wellness. Occupational therapists are health professionals who use occupation and meaningful activities with specific goals to help people of all ages prevent, lessen, or adapt to disabilities.

Where is occupational therapy most needed? ›

Where Occupational Therapists Work and Are Needed Most
  • Home Health Care. ...
  • Hospital Setting. ...
  • Acute, Subacute, and Restorative Rehabilitation Centers. ...
  • Skilled Nursing Facility. ...
  • Outpatient Setting. ...
  • Mental Health. ...
  • School. ...
  • Early Intervention.
Jun 28, 2022

What body parts do occupational therapist treat? ›

What Body Parts Do Occupational Therapists Treat? Occupational therapists are generally specialists in conditions that affect the elbow, wrist, hand, and shoulder. However, they can assist with conditions that affect the entire body. Each client's case is unique and so the treatment plans will vary.

Where do most occupational therapists work? ›

Most occupational therapists work in hospitals or occupational therapy practices while others work in schools, physicians' offices, home health services and nursing homes. Occupational therapists in hospitals and other health care and community settings usually work a 40-hour week.

Who would benefit from occupational therapy? ›

It's a growing medical specialty, with close to 200,000 occupational therapists in the United States alone.
Some of the conditions that benefit from OT include:
  • ADHD.
  • Arthritis.
  • Chronic pain.
  • Stroke.
  • Diabetes.
  • Spinal cord injury.
  • Brain injury.
  • Multiple sclerosis.
Sep 4, 2020

Do occupational therapist help with anxiety? ›

Occupational therapy plays an important role in helping clients with anxiety manage their condition and minimise its impact on their daily life. An occupational therapist will work with a client with anxiety to identify how the condition is affecting them and what their future goals are.

Do occupational therapists treat anxiety? ›

Occupational therapy helps you manage your anxiety and reduce its impact on your daily life. An occupational therapist will help you identify your future goals and map a plan of action to achieve those goals.

What are the disadvantages of occupational therapy? ›

Here are 6 of the most common obstacles that OTs face on a daily:
  • 1 – The Medical Field is Emotionally Stressful. ...
  • 2 – Occupational Therapy is a Physically Demanding Job. ...
  • 3 – Institutional Barriers May Prevent Desired Results. ...
  • 4 – Long Work Hours Are Common. ...
  • 5 – Learning New Techniques and Technology.

What assessments do occupational therapists do? ›

Assessments can explore the following areas:

Developmental skills including motor and play development. Self-care and functional skills such as feeding, toileting and dressing. Fine motor skills in relation to handwriting and using a knife and fork. Gross motor skills in relation to riding a bike, sitting posture.

What is the most challenging part of occupational therapy? ›

The first and sometimes most stressful aspect of being an OT of which I can attribute to is productivity. Almost every OT job in the adult setting – whether it's acute care, inpatient rehab, outpatient therapy, home health, or skilled nursing – will have some sort of productivity requirement.

Can an occupational therapist diagnose ADHD? ›

During the evaluation, your occupational therapist will consider how ADHD affects your child's schoolwork, social life, and home life. Furthermore, they will conduct a test to discover your child's strengths and weaknesses. Then they will recommend ways to address each challenge.

What are the 7 core values of occupational therapy? ›

The profession of occupational therapy remains grounded in seven core concepts, as identified in the Core Values and Attitudes of Occupational Therapy Practice (AOTA, 1993): altruism, equality, freedom, justice, dignity, truth, and prudence.

What does an occupational therapist do on a daily basis? ›

An occupational therapist treats people with injuries, disabilities, or developmental delays using several therapeutic daily activities. They evaluate, plan, organize, and conduct rehabilitative programs that seek to develop or restore important living skills, and improve general independence.

What are the key skills of an occupational therapist? ›

Key skills for occupational therapists
  • Patience.
  • Determination.
  • Enthusiasm.
  • Excellent interpersonal and communication skills.
  • An interest in working closely with people.
  • Good teamworking skills.
  • Ability to find solutions to problems.

What are the 4 pillars of occupational therapy? ›

1.4 The Framework is structured around four interacting Pillars of Practice, namely: Professional Practice; Facilitation of Learning; Leadership; and Evidence, Research and Development.

What are the 5 domains of occupational therapy? ›

What are the 5 Domains of Occupational Therapy? Occupations, Client Factors, Performance Skills, Performance Patterns & Contexts and Environments.

Who needs occupational therapy? ›

Who Needs Occupational Therapy? Just about anyone who struggles to do any kind of task may need it. If you have one of these health problems, ask your doctor if OT could help you: Arthritis and chronic pain.

Is occupational therapy a high paying job? ›

The amount of money you can make as an OT depends on many factors, including where you live, your experience, and your working environment. The median salary for all OTs was $85,570 in 2021, according to the BLS. However, pay varied greatly depending on the industry.

What are the three kinds of activities that occupational therapists use? ›

These can be further considered in three sub-categories:
  • Occupation-Based Activity. Patients engage in behaviors or activities that match their own goals and lifestyles. ...
  • Purposeful Activity. Patients participate in goal-directed, therapeutic behaviors that lead to an occupation. ...
  • Preparatory Methods.

What are the disadvantages of being an occupational therapist? ›

Here are 6 of the most common obstacles that OTs face on a daily:
  • 1 – The Medical Field is Emotionally Stressful. ...
  • 2 – Occupational Therapy is a Physically Demanding Job. ...
  • 3 – Institutional Barriers May Prevent Desired Results. ...
  • 4 – Long Work Hours Are Common. ...
  • 5 – Learning New Techniques and Technology.

What education is required to be an occupational therapist? ›


1. How Do You Describe Occupational Therapy? – with Nelson Gonzalez
(OT Potential)
2. Get to know an Occupational Therapist
(The Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne)
3. What can a Pediatric Occupational Therapist do for kids?
(Glacial Ridge Health System)
4. Occupational therapy as a career
(Royal College of Occupational Therapists)
5. Career Profile - Occupational Therapist
(Loma Linda University Health)
6. What do you do? Occupational Therapist
(Spokane Public Schools)
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