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What does an occupational therapist do?

It’s one of the fastest growing professions on the planet, but that doesn’t mean everyone knows exactly what an occupational therapist (OT) does every day. In fact, Head of Bond University’s Occupational Therapy program, Professor Susan Brandis, says the two most common questions she’s asked from future students are “what is OT?” and “how is it different from physiotherapy?”

If you’re looking to get the tea on life as an OT, you’ve come to the right place.

What’s the difference between a physio and OT?

Both occupational therapists and physiotherapists work with people and help them with their physical abilities and capabilities – so it’s easy to understand how the lines between physiotherapy and occupational therapy can become a little blurry.

As Professor Brandis explains, a physiotherapist focuses on a person’s mobility, physical development and physical ability, and uses a variety of techniques (or as they say in the industry – modalities) like exercise, manipulation and massage. An OT focuses on occupation, and the use of functional activities to allow a person to live their life to their fullest potential, across work, leisure and self-care.

“Both professions aim to improve quality of life,” says Professor Brandis.

“Physiotherapists primarily use their skills in physical functioning and mobility, and occupational therapists focus their skills on occupation and enablement.”

Did you know? “Physiotherapy and occupational therapy are sibling professions that share many similarities in history. In the World Wars, physios and OTs worked together as ‘reconstruction aids’ to help wounded returning soldiers put their lives back together after WWI. While OTs focused on helping soldiers to be able to perform functional activities and important occupations of the time such as woodwork, type setting and weaving, physios developed skills in the rehabilitation of soldiers with physical disabilities like lower limb amputations.” – Professor Susan Brandis

What do we mean by occupation?

Occupation doesn’t just refer to what happens in the workplace. In the context of occupational therapy, occupation is a broad term that encompasses all the everyday activities we do to ‘occupy’ our time.

“Occupations include everything that we do as individuals, with our families, or in the community,” says Professor Brandis.

“This means we help people learn to participate in lots of different activities, from tasks around the house - like preparing food, or showering - to more complex tasks like participating in a hobby or social activity. It’s really based on the person and their needs, wants and desires.”

Where does an OT work?

OTs practise in a range of different settings, including public and private hospitals, mental health services, community health centres, rehabilitation facilities, aged care facilities, education, private clinics, non-government organisations, and research.  

Did you know? Australia’s introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), ageing population, and focus on helping people stay at home longer, are some of the factors that have contributed to the demand for occupational therapists. 

Who does an OT work with?

OTs work with many people from many different demographics and circumstances, and there are many reasons why a person would come to work with an OT. OTs work with people who have sustained a serious injury, have been impacted by an illness or disability, or are going through a big life change.

Notably, OTs don’t just work with people who are experiencing physical issues. As Assistant Professor Tawanda Machingura explains, a person’s emotional wellbeing is equally important, and OTs often help people experiencing mental health issues.

“The practice of occupational therapy in mental health is based on the philosophy and evidence that individuals diagnosed with mental health conditions can and do recover and lead meaningful, satisfying, and productive lives,” says Assistant Professor Machingura.

“Occupational therapists working in mental health help their clients to engage in everyday meaningful activities. They  have a range of skills including the scientific understanding and application of mental health knowledge, psychosocial development, occupation and environmental analysis, group dynamics and occupational therapy strategies which they draw on when helping their clients to understand and live successfully and with satisfaction in communities of their choice”.

How do I become an OT?

To become an occupational therapist, the first step is to complete an accredited university program, such as Bond’s Master of Occupational Therapy. Bond’s master’s program is a high-level qualification, and can be completed in just two years with Bond’s accelerated timetable. It has full accreditation with the Occupational Therapy Board of Australia, and is also recognised by the World Federation of Occupational Therapists.

Following your degree, you can apply for registration with the Occupational Therapy Board of Australia.

Start your occupational therapy career at Bond

Graduate with a postgraduate OT qualification in just two years at Bond, gaining 1,000 hours of practical experience during your degree.

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