What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

Occupational therapy distinguishes itself from other healthcare professions, such as physical therapy and nursing, by focusing on treating the whole patient rather than a specific ailment or injury. 

A nurse, for example, may assist a patient with post-surgery pain management and dressing changes. In contrast, an occupational therapist assesses the importance of daily activities and guides the patient to regain their independence and resume their defining roles in life.

According to occupational therapy expert Roberts, "What sets OTs apart is our focus on occupation as the tool we use to restore, rebuild, and enhance our clients' lives. 'Occupation' encompasses the daily activities, roles, tasks, and goals that define who we are. 

Whether it involves work tasks, artistic expressions, leisure pursuits, school responsibilities, or play activities, everyone has activities that define their identity. Using these activities as therapeutic tools helps us build better patient lives."

Key Roles and Responsibilities

Occupational therapists, or OTs, take a therapeutic approach to daily activities. Their responsibilities encompass helping patients develop, recover, and improve concerning a condition or injury while maintaining the skills necessary for daily life. The typical roles of an OT include:

  • Evaluating a patient's condition and needs.
  • Developing treatment plans tailored to a patient's needs and specific goals.
  • Assessing a patient's home and work environment and suggesting adaptations for independence.
  • Training patients and their caregivers to use specialized equipment.
  • Assessing and documenting progress for evaluation, billing, and reporting purposes.

The daily tasks of occupational therapists can vary based on their work setting. Many OTs work in hospitals or private practices. Still, opportunities exist in educational settings, where they help with child development or in senior care to ease the challenges that come with aging. Those with an entrepreneurial spirit may even open and manage their private practice.

Understanding the Process


Your journey with an occupational therapist typically begins with an assessment. During this phase, your therapist will get to know you and your goals, discussing any challenges you face in achieving them. They may also visit your home or workplace to understand your environment and specific needs better.


"Interventions" encompass any changes in your environment or routines to enhance your ability to complete tasks. Depending on your unique needs, this could involve learning to use assistive equipment, adopting new exercises, or addressing mental and emotional health issues.

Examples of Occupational Therapy Interventions

Occupational therapists can help you with various daily tasks, including dressing, managing medications, grocery shopping, driving, and using technology. They will tailor their interventions to your physical, mental, and social objectives.

Evaluations and Adjustments

Your occupational therapist will closely monitor your progress and hold periodic evaluations to assess your development. During these evaluations, they will consider your physical and mental health, making any necessary adjustments to your interventions to ensure they are effective.

Benefits of Occupational Therapy

Your occupational therapist will assist you in achieving your mobility and activity goals and ensure you have access to all the necessary resources. They collaborate with other healthcare team members to enhance your overall physical health and connect you with emotional and social support to make your daily routine safer and more comfortable.

Conditions Treated by Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists can assist with injuries, medical conditions, or disabilities that hinder your daily life. Some examples of conditions they address include:

  • Bone fractures
  • Burns
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Strokes
  • Amputations
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Hand injuries
  • Chronic conditions such as spina bifida, cancer, multiple sclerosis (MS), and cerebral palsy
  • Disabilities including autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, and Down syndrome

Required Skills

While occupational therapists come from diverse backgrounds, several key skills and qualities are essential for success. These include:

  • Compassion and Empathy: OTs must have a strong sense of compassion and empathy to work in the best interests of their patients, making a positive difference during challenging times in their lives.
  • Communication Skills: Effective written and verbal communication is vital for understanding patients' needs and explaining the treatment process. Clear documentation and collaboration with other healthcare professionals are also critical.
  • Problem Solving: Given the unique nature of each case, OTs need excellent problem-solving skills to determine the best course of action for individual situations.
  • Patience and Flexibility: Occupational therapy often involves a lengthy journey towards regaining independence. OTs must exhibit patience and flexibility when dealing with the highs and lows of this process.

Required Education

Becoming a licensed occupational therapist involves substantial education and training. Most OTs enter the field with a master's degree in occupational therapy, while some pursue a doctoral degree for advanced specialization. Additionally, graduates must pass the national exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) to earn the title "Occupational Therapist, Registered" (OTR) and obtain state licensure.

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) offers various board and specialty certifications for OTs who wish to demonstrate advanced skills in specific practice areas, including gerontology, mental health, pediatrics, physical rehabilitation, and more.

Is an Occupational Therapy Career Worth It?

The future looks promising for occupational therapists. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the field is expected to grow by 14 percent from 2021 to 2031, significantly faster than the average for all occupations. This growth translates to approximately 10,100 new jobs within the next decade.

In 2021, the BLS reported that occupational therapists earned an average annual salary of $85,570, with compensation varying based on the state of employment. The demand for occupational therapists is projected to rise, especially with the aging baby-boom generation and the need for treatment related to age-related ailments such as arthritis and stroke.

The Path to Becoming an Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapy offers a highly rewarding career in a field with increasing demand as healthcare evolves. If you are contemplating a career in the medical field and want to positively impact patients' lives, occupational therapy could be an ideal choice.

As Roberts aptly summarizes, "The biggest difference between OT and many other healthcare professions is that 'We do with people, not to people.' We're all about helping people live life to the fullest, regardless of their life or who they are."

If you're passionate about improving the lives of others, consider taking the first step toward a meaningful career by earning a master's degree in occupational therapy and becoming a registered occupational therapist. It is the right move for you.


How Long Does It Take to Become an Occupational Therapist?

Becoming an occupational therapist in the United States is a rigorous process. It typically takes six to seven years of education and training. Occupational therapists must hold a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in occupational therapy. Additionally, they must pass an exam administered by the National Board of Certification in Occupational Therapy, with some states having additional requirements.

Is an Occupational Therapist a Doctor?

Occupational therapists are not medical doctors (MDs) or doctors of osteopathy (DOs). They cannot diagnose medical conditions, prescribe medications, or perform surgeries.

Occupational Therapy vs. Physical Therapy

While both occupational and physical therapy aim to improve physical well-being, they differ in their approaches. Physical therapy focuses on specific areas of the body and is often used for pain management and rehabilitation after injury or surgery. On the other hand, occupational therapy takes a more holistic approach, addressing mental and social challenges while enhancing physical health. Individuals may benefit from combining both therapies to address various symptom management and recovery aspects.


Occupational therapists are unsung heroes in the healthcare industry. Their expertise in helping people of all ages lead fulfilling lives is invaluable. From children with developmental challenges to adults recovering from injuries, occupational therapists play a pivotal role in enhancing the quality of life for their patients. 

Their commitment to personalized care, education, and ongoing research is a testament to their dedication. If you need assistance to improve your daily life or that of a loved one, don't hesitate to reach out to these professionals who truly make a difference.

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