Occupational Therapists Overview

Employment for an Occupational therapist is expected to grow faster than average, and job opportunities will be good, especially for therapists treating the elderly. Occupational therapists are regulated in all 50 States with varying requirements by State. Occupational therapists increasingly take on supervisory roles, which allow assistants and aides to work more closely with clients under the guidance of a therapist.

Nature of the Work for Occupational Therapists

Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists help patients improve their ability to perform tasks in living and working environments. They work with fine motor and visual perceptual disabilities. Occupational therapists also work to develop, recover, and maintain daily living and work skills of their patients. The therapist helps clients not only to improve their basic motor functions and reasoning abilities, but also to compensate for permanent loss of function. The goal is to help clients live independent and productive lives.

Occupational therapists help clients perform all types of activities, from using a computer to caring for daily needs such as dressing, cooking, and eating. Physical exercises may be used to increase strength and dexterity, while other activities may be chosen to improve visual acuity or the ability to discern patterns. For example, a client with short-term memory loss might be encouraged to make lists to aid recall, and a person with coordination problems might be assigned exercises to improve hand-eye coordination. Occupational therapists also use computer programs to help clients improve decision-making, abstract-reasoning, problem-solving, and perceptual skills, as well as memory, sequencing, and coordination—all of which are important for independent living.

Patients with permanent disabilities often need specialized instruction to master daily tasks. For these individuals, therapists demonstrate the use of adaptive equipment, including wheelchairs, orthotics, eating and dressing aids. They also determine the need for special adaptive computer equipment while teaching clients how to use them to control situations in their environment. Some occupational therapists treat individuals who need to increase their ability to function in a work environment. They might arrange employment, evaluate the work space, plan work activities, and assess the client's progress. Therapists also may collaborate with the client and the employer to modify an unsuccessful work environment.

Occupational therapists assess and record a client's progress because accurate records are essential when evaluating clients for billing and reporting to healthcare providers.

Occupational therapists may decide to work exclusively with individuals in a particular age group or with a particular disability. In schools, for example, they evaluate children's capabilities, recommend and provide therapy, modify classroom equipment, and help children participate in school activities. A therapist may work with children individually, in small groups, consult with a teacher, or serve on an administrative committee. Some may provide early intervention therapy to infants and toddlers who have developmental delays. Therapies may include facilitating the use of the hands, eye-hand coordination, writing, social play, dressing, or grooming.

Other occupational therapists evaluate and work with elderly patients helping them to lead more productive, active, and independent lives. Therapists with specialized training in driver rehabilitation assess an individual's ability to drive to make recommendations for adaptive equipment to prolong driving independence, and offer alternative transportation options. Occupational therapists also work with clients to assess their homes for hazards and to identify environmental factors that contribute to falls.

Occupational therapists may choose to treat individuals in mental health settings. Therapists choose activities that help people learn to engage in and cope with daily life. Activities might include time management skills, budgeting, shopping, homemaking, and the use of public transportation. Occupational therapists also work with individuals who are dealing with alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, eating disorders, or stress-related disorders.

Occupational therapists face hazards such as back strain from lifting and moving clients and equipment; or work with devices that generate excessive noise. Also, the work can be tiring because therapists are on their feet much of the time. Occupational therapists working for one employer full-time usually work a 40-hour week. It is not uncommon for occupational therapists to work for more than one employer at multiple facilities, which may involve significant travel time. Those in schools may participate in meetings at varying times of the day.

Training, Other Qualifications and Advancement for Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists are regulated in all states. Individuals pursuing a career as an occupational therapist usually need to earn a post-baccalaureate degree from an accredited college or university or education deemed equivalent. Having a masters degree or higher in occupational therapy is the typical minimum requirement for entry into the field. In addition, occupational therapists must attend an academic program accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) in order to sit for the national certifying exam.

There are 150 accredited masters or combined bachelors degree and masters degree programs, and 4 doctoral degree programs. Although most schools have full-time programs, a growing number are offering weekend or part-time programs. Coursework in occupational therapy programs include the physical, biological, and behavioral sciences as well as the application of occupational therapy theory and skills. The academic curriculum of accredited programs require at least 24 weeks of supervised fieldwork.

People considering this profession should take high school courses in biology, chemistry, physics, health, art, and the social sciences. College admissions offices also look favorably on paid or volunteer experience in the healthcare field. Relevant undergraduate majors include biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, liberal arts, and anatomy.

To obtain a license, applicants must graduate from an accredited educational program and pass a national certification examination, however, certification is voluntary. Those who pass are awarded the title “Occupational Therapist Registered (OTR).” Contact your State’s licensing board for specific eligibility requirements, because some have additional requirements for therapists who work in schools or early intervention programs such as, education-related classes, an education practice certificate, or early intervention certification. Professional development, by participating in continuing education courses and workshops, may also be a State requirement as a condition of maintaining licensure.

Occupational therapists need patience and strong interpersonal skills to inspire trust and respect in their clients because some clients may not show immediate improvement. Ingenuity and imagination in adapting activities to individual needs are assets.

Therapists are increasingly taking on supervisory roles in addition to their supervision of occupational therapy assistants and aides. Occupational therapists may advance their careers by taking on administrative duties at hospitals or rehabilitation centers. Occupational therapists can increase their chances for advancement by specializing in a clinical area and gaining expertise in treating a certain type of patient or ailment. In addition, some occupational therapists choose to teach classes in accredited occupational therapy educational programs.

Top 10 Most Popular Occupational Therapy Schools

1. University of Southern California (Los Angeles, California)
2. Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, Michigan)
3. San Jose State University (San Jose, California)
4. University of New Hampshire, Durham (Durham, New Hampshire)
5. Boston University (Boston, Massachusetts)
6. Texas Woman's University (Denton, Texas)
7. Towson University (Baltimore, Maryland)
8. University of Southern Indiana (Evansville, Indiana)
9. University of Indianapolis (Indianapolis, Indiana)
10. New York University (New York, New York)

See All Occupational Therapy Schools

Most Popular Online Occupational Therapy Schools

1. Kansas State University - Online School
2. University of Florida - Online School
3. Quinnipiac University - Online School
4. Nova Southeastern University - Online School

Employment and Job Outlook for Occupational Therapists

Number of People in Profession


Changing Employment (2008-2018)

Employment is projected to grow much faster than average (increase 20% or more).

Occupational therapists hold about 104,500 jobs. The largest number of occupational therapist jobs is in ambulatory healthcare services, which employ about 29% of occupational therapists. Other major employers are hospitals, offices of other health practitioners, public and private educational services, nursing care facilities, and government agencies.

A small number of occupational therapists are self-employed. These practitioners treat clients referred by other health professionals. They also provided contract or consulting services to nursing care facilities, schools, adult day care programs, and home healthcare agencies.

Employment is expected to grow much faster than average, by about 26 percent. The increasing elderly population will drive growth in the demand for occupational therapy services, and should continue to rise as a result of the number of individuals with limited function who require therapy services. Because the 75 and older populations have an higher incidence of heart attack and stroke, this demand for therapeutic services will rise. In addition, medical advances now enable more patients with critical problems to survive however growth may be dampened by the impact of Federal legislation imposing limits on reimbursement for therapy services.

Hospitals will continue to employ a large number of occupational therapists to provide inpatient therapy services and staff their outpatient rehabilitation programs. Employment growth in schools will result from the expansion of the school-age population and the needed services for disabled students. Job opportunities should be good for licensed occupational therapists in all healthcare settings, while those with specialized knowledge in a treatment area will also have increased job prospects. Driver rehabilitation, training for the elderly, and ergonomic consulting are emerging practice areas for occupational therapy.

Earnings and Salary for Occupational Therapists

Median annual wages of occupational therapists are $69,630. The highest 10 percent earn more than $100,430 while the lowest 10 percent earn less than $45,340. The middle 50 percent earned between $57,230 and $84,150. Median annual wages in the top employing industries for occupational therapists are:

Home health care services: $74,510
Nursing care facilities: $72,790
Offices of other health care practitioners: $69,360
General medical and surgical hospitals: $68,100
Elementary and secondary schools: $60,020

Annual Salary for Occupational Therapists

On average, Occupational Therapists earn $69,630 per year.

10% 25% 75% 90% $45,340/yr $57,230/yr $84,150/yr $100,430/yr

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook