Hot Healthcare Careers of 2008: Occupational Therapist
With the war in Iraq and Afghanistan returning wounded soldiers and reporters back home, the need for occupational therapists (OT) in today’s health care system has never been greater. Key-noting last year’s American Occupational Therapist Association (AOTA) conference, Time Senior Correspondent Michael Weisskopf shined the spotlight on occupational therapy when he explained how the allied health profession was instrumental in his rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. While on assignment Weisskopf lost his hand after tossing out a grenade that had landed in the Army Humvee he was riding in.
Not only do OTs prepare soldiers to return to active duty or transition to civilian life, they help the young and old to learn or relearn everyday skills. The goal for clients is to become more independent—that could mean anything from helping a Down syndrome child learn how to button their shirt or a stroke patient manipulate a car steering wheel. OTs are not to be confused with physical therapists, who do more corporeal tasks working to build a patient’s range of motion rather than life-specific tasks.
In 2007 industry-wide education standards for OTs changed to require a master’s degree in occupational therapy as the entry point for the profession. Before pursuing a master’s in OT, students typically get a bachelor’s degree in one of these areas: biology, kinesiology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, anatomy, or liberal arts. New OTs are also required to have six months of supervised field work and passing scores on national and state examinations. As of last year, there were 124 master’s programs nationwide, 66 programs offering combined bachelor’s and master’s degrees and five programs offering entry-level doctoral degrees. The doctoral degree is useful for those practitioners wanting to become managers or administrators. Doctoral programs offer additional study focusing on clinical practice skills, research skills, administration, leadership, program and policy development, advocacy and education.
OT job growth is set to increase 23 percent through 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Much of the growth is being driven by the expansion of the elderly population. And it’s interesting to note that the home health care industry, which in large part provides health care to elderly clientele, is where OTs can make the most money—on average $76,530. For comparison, the average OT salary in May 2007 was $65,540.
Demand for occupational therapy services is on the rise. A 2007 study by the Midwest Center for Health Workforce Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago showed there was an OT shortage across the U.S. and across all practice settings due to increased demand and reduced supply. Consequently, over the past five years enrollment in occupational therapy has grown 22 percent. To get a sense of the OT job market, take a look at an AOTA 2006 survey that showed 99 percent of occupational therapy graduates were able to secure a job within two months of graduation. Other than high marketplace demand, occupational therapy is appealing because the variety of settings OTs work in that encompasses hospitals, rehab clinics, schools and nursing homes.
OTs have many opportunities to take the next step in their careers. OTs can advance by getting certified in a specialty area like gerontology or mental health. They can also go into management. Usually a master’s in health care administration, special education or a doctorate degree in occupational therapy is suggested for OTs to move into the management ranks. OTs can also go into business for themselves and open a private practice. The possibilities are unlimited in this robust career.