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The College of St. Scholastica

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.

If you’re searching for your perfect OT path, see below for a breakdown of some common focus areas and their corresponding niches as identified by American Occupational Therapy Association. You may find yourself drawn toward a specific specialty as a result!

6 of the most common occupational therapy practice areas

1. Children and youth

Examples: childhood obesity; bullying; 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

Examples: Alzheimer’s disease and dementia; low vision; driving; 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

Examples: 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 and disability

Examples: autism in adults; telehealth; hand transplants and bionic limbs; 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 and wellness

Examples: chronic disease management; obesity; 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 and industry

Examples: the aging workforce; 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?

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.