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6 occupational therapy specialties that can empower patients & strengthen communities

Jess Scherman By  Jess Scherman  |  @jescherman  | 

OT-Specialties

Occupational therapists play an influential role in maintaining the healthcare and quality of life within our communities. Many people confuse occupational therapy (OT) with physical therapy but, rather than specializing exclusively in rehabilitation and motion, OT's primary focus is on enabling patients to engage in the meaningful activities of daily life. Specifically, OT is necessary when a person's ability to live independently is disrupted by illness or injury.  

As part of its Centennial Vision, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) identified six key practice areas that allow occupational therapists to profoundly impact the lives of patients in need.  

If you're searching for your perfect OT path, see below for a breakdown of each of the focus areas and their corresponding niches as identified by AOTA. You may find yourself drawn toward a specific specialty as a result!  

6 of the most common occupational therapy practice areas

1. Children & youth

Emerging niches: childhood obesity, bullying and driving for teens  

Occupational therapists in the pediatric sphere work with infants, children and youth in a variety of settings, from schools and clinics to working with the patients and their families in their own homes.  

These healthcare professionals help children adjust to physical, emotional and mental challenges that can impair functional performance and participation. The range of conditions can span from developmental disabilities to brain injuries. Pediatric occupational therapists develop strategies to help physically strengthen their young patients and perform daily life skills in new ways through assistive technology.  

2. Productive aging

Emerging niches: Alzheimer's disease and dementia, low vision, driving and community mobility  

The combination of increased life expectancy and rapidly aging baby boomers has paved the way for professionals working to promote productive aging and improve the quality of life for older adults.  

Occupational therapists focus on maintaining participation in valued activities for older adults with an emphasis on fall prevention, home safety, community mobility and workplace accommodations. They specialize in modifying tasks and environments to allow safe and comfortable access to daily activities.     

3. Mental health

Emerging niches: depression, recovery and peer support, and veterans' and wounded warriors' mental health 

The World Health Organization has identified mental illness as a growing cause of disability across the globe with all indications suggesting that it will eventually top the charts. This has brought the focus on mental health within OT to the forefront in recent years.  

Occupational therapists address mental health wellness with all clients. Strategies to ensure mental health wellness may include addressing the barriers to mental stability, assisting clients in developing effective coping strategies and developing interpersonal and social skills.  

These healthcare professionals provide education, adaptations and advocacy for individuals with mental illness in home, work and school environments all with the goal of promoting meaningful and productive daily routines.    

4. Rehabilitation & disability

Emerging niches: autism in adults, telehealth, hand transplants and bionic limbs, and cancer care  

AOTA considers rehabilitation to be one of the core tenets of OT, as it addresses the needs of individuals with injuries or illnesses that may impact a person's occupational performance in daily routines and activities. This key practice area aims to return individuals to satisfied levels of participation in the activities they need and want to perform.  

The focus on rehabilitation, disability and participation leads occupational therapists to work with a wide range of patients, including those recovering from strokes or living with brain injuries, cancer, chronic disease, developmental disabilities and more.  

5. Health & wellness

Emerging niches: chronic disease management, obesity and prevention  

A growing amount of research exists that links physical health to emotional strength and well-being. This intensified focus on health and wellness is due to a number of different factors, including nationwide increases in life expectancy; an amplified focus on healthcare disparities; the physical impacts of obesity; and the prevalence of elements that challenge the pace of life, such as technology.  

Occupational therapists provide valuable expertise in pain rehabilitation, diabetes self-management, modifications for managing arthritis and sleep routines for all individuals.  

6. Work & industry

Emerging niches: the aging workforce and new technology in the workplace  

Occupational therapists who specialize in workplace health aim to improve the connections individuals have to their job tasks and work environment. They work with employers and employees to restore or develop skills and implement modifications for successful transitions back to work after illness or injury. They also specialize in proactive measures to prevent illness or injury within the work environment and maintain workplace health and wellness.  

Occupational therapists working in this sector promote participation, health, productivity and satisfaction within work environments.  

Are you drawn to a specific occupational therapy specialty?

In 2017, both the OT profession and AOTA will turn 100. This is why AOTA has been promoting its Centennial Vision, an initiative that celebrates decades of success and considers ways to advance the field of OT well into the 21st Century.  

Now that you're aware of the key areas of practice that are critical to shaping the future of OT, your place in this impactful career is in the palm of your hand!

Visit St. Scholastica's OT program page to learn more about becoming a certified occupational therapist, and you can be playing an active role in improving your community before you know it.

Jess Scherman


Jess is a higher education content creator who writes on behalf of The College of St. Scholastica. She researches and writes content to help current and prospective students on their path to educational success. As a published poet with a passion for the transformative nature of higher education, she loves discovering new ways to use her writing as a tool to help others.

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