The rewards of a career as an occupational therapist

Published 7:00 pm Sunday, April 8, 2012

(ARA) – What do pediatrics, geriatrics and cardiology have in common? Patients in these three very different branches of medicine can benefit from occupational therapy. An occupational therapist (OT) helps people with disabling conditions to recover or develop daily living skills, such as dressing, cooking and eating. An OT’s right-hand man, or woman, is the occupational therapy assistant (OTA).

This versatile occupation is proving to be a rewarding career choice for many who are returning to school to heighten employment prospects. An OTA works under the direction of an OT to provide the rehabilitative exercises and activities prescribed in the therapist’s treatment plan. “It’s very interesting work. You learn something new every day,” says Joan Welch, MHA COTA/L, and OTA Site Coordinator at Brown Mackie College – Merrillville.

The necessary education toward becoming an OTA includes earning a two-year associates degree instead of the master’s degree necessary for an OT position. Employment opportunities are expected to grow much faster than average, or 30 percent through 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The BLS credits this high projected growth to the increased elderly population that is more susceptible to debilitating and chronic conditions, plus the rising number of therapists who use assistants.

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Helping the elderly remain independent

Elderly patients suffering from a variety of conditions benefit from occupational therapy. “Arthritis kicks in, hips get fractured, and knee replacement surgery is becoming more common,” says Welch. In fact, MedPage Today, a medical news website, reported a 157 percent increase in knee replacement surgery among middle-aged women between 1997 and 2009. In middle-aged men, the procedure increased by 144 percent.

The American Heart Association reports heart disease and strokes as two of the top three leading causes of death among adults. Many of these patients also benefit from occupational therapy. “For cardiac patients, we determine if they can stand long enough to prepare a meal, or do laundry,” Welch says. This often involves organizing the living space or making a chair available for breaks.

“We work on energy conservation techniques, and set the patients up with adaptive equipment,” she says. “The work is never boring. The challenge is to help the patient become as independent as possible. The beauty is you often see the patient going home because of your hard work.”

Helping children develop

Ann Fouts is an OTA instructor at Brown Mackie College – Merrillville, who has extensive experience in working with infants and children. Pediatric patients who can benefit from OT include premature infants, who often suffer from developmental delays.

“Developing from a single cell to a functioning human being is an incredibly complex process. We look at gross motor skills, fine motor skills, language development and social interaction,” says Fouts. “We work by engaging the child in normal play activity. For an infant, we work with positioning and use various facilitation techniques to help improve development.” An OTA also teaches parents how to be effective in helping their child develop.

Students often struggle with heart-wrenching situations of babies, and bring their concerns to Fouts. “I tell them, ‘What will happen to this child without your help? You can make their time easier, happier, and more productive,” she says. “Countless kids are my true heroes. They don’t care that they have a disability. They just move forward without worrying what society thinks of them. The hardships of the profession lead directly to the rewards. You couldn’t ask for a better position to be in.”