If you’re looking to develop a career that will allow you to work to directly enhance people’s quality of life, then occupational therapy could be ideal. It lets you work hands-on with patients, finding solutions to their problems where no-one else can, building up their confidence, and giving them new freedoms or restoring old ones they have lost. You’ll be working to improve their physical, psychological, social and environmental prospects, helping them to perform everyday tasks more safely and effectively, giving them better access to employment, and helping them use technology to enhance their skills.
With all that said, what skills do you need to make this happen? This article takes you through the building blocks of an occupational therapy career.
Important skills in occupational therapy
As an occupational therapist, you won’t be required to diagnose complaints or advise on medication, but you will need to have a good basic understanding of medical issues, anatomy and neurology. In most cases, you’ll be able to build on this with additional research on specific issues immediately prior to working with new patients. This will help you to ensure that the work you do is safe and appropriate in each case and make it easier for you to understand your patients’ needs, bearing in mind that they won’t always be able to articulate them very well. It will also help you to understand and engage effectively with treatment plans established by physicians, nurses or physiotherapists.
As well as having a good basic understanding of how bodies work, you’ll need to understand the various pieces of equipment that can help patients – everything from simple gadgets and levers to more complex pieces of machinery such as electric stair-climbing wheelchairs and hoists. You’ll need to be able to teach patients and their carers how to use equipment safely, and you may even be involved in helping to design bespoke equipment where existing options fall short of what’s needed. Alongside this, you’ll need to be comfortable with the technology needed for telemedicine, and you may find yourself required to provide technical support to patients who are just learning how to make this work at their end.
As an occupational therapist, you’ll often be dealing with vulnerable people. Some of them will have cognitive impairments, while others will be affected by trauma or suffering from distracting levels of pain. This makes it imperative that you can communicate clearly. You’ll also need to be a good listener and develop your active listening skills. It’s vital to get a clear picture of your patients’ needs if you are to assist them effectively. Don’t assume that either carers or other healthcare professionals understand the situation completely. Be patient and make sure that patients know that they can trust you. Bear in mind that even those who are not legally able to give consent can often articulate their wishes if given enough time and support.
In a role that is often focused on the intersection of different services and different categories of need, you will deal with a high proportion of patients who have complex needs. Often, this is because they are living with multiple ailments, but there may also be other factors involved – for instance, many people who provide care for elderly or disabled relatives are also elderly or disabled. This means that you will have a lot to take into account when solving problems, and standard solutions won’t always work. The most successful occupational therapists tend to be those who view this as a stimulating challenge. Often, patients (who know their situations better than anyone else) have good ideas of their own, so it helps to work closely with them.
When you’re dealing with complex cases, there is, inevitably, complex paperwork. You will spend a lot of your time chasing up and reading patient records, writing your own reports and making sure that everything is correctly filed. Accurate paperwork significantly reduces the risk of mistakes that could jeopardize patient health, while also helping to protect you and other healthcare professionals from a legal standpoint. You’ll need to liaise with people in many different healthcare roles and deal with welfare sector professionals, people working in housing, and so on. It’s vital to be diligent and well organized, maintaining a systematic approach even when dealing with cases that are difficult to categorize.
As part of a team of healthcare professionals, you will need to be able to collaborate with others to deliver a comprehensive package of care to each patient you treat. This means knowing when to give way to others’ expertise, but also when to stand up for your own, and when to advocate on a patient’s behalf.
You will sometimes find yourself expected to be the person who coordinates the team, but on other occasions you’ll receive quite specific instructions from others and have to do what you can to make them work. You’ll need to bear in mind that patients sometimes find it fatiguing to have to deal with several different people. However, good teamwork reduces the burden by reducing the amount of repetition required and ensuring that services complement rather than complicate one another.
Teamwork is an essential aspect of most working careers, and it is a skill that can be learned at a university or online college. If you enroll on one of the online OTD programs at American International College, you’ll get extensive advice on all these aspects of occupational therapy practice from professors and from people with direct experience in the field. The program can be completed in just two years if you’re studying full-time. The course will help you to engage not just with theory but also with the practical skills you need to actualize it.
Occupational therapy is a challenging but rewarding career that will give you good prospects and a real sense of fulfilment. It will also help you to develop skills that enhance your own quality of life by enriching all of your interactions. If you think that you might have what it takes, why not start finding out more today?
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