What is an occupational therapist?

Occupational therapist

Have you ever wondered what an occupational therapist does?  Find out about our occupational therapists and the work they do here at UHDB.  Whether you're a patient or you're interested in becoming an OT, here's what you need to know. 

What is an occupational therapist?

Occupational therapists support and empower people to do the day-to-day activities that matter to them and increase independence and satisfaction in all aspects of life. ‘Occupation’ refers to any activity that enables someone to live an independent life and can include self-care, work or leisure activities. For example, getting out of bed in the morning, getting dressed or making a meal.

Occupational therapists work with adults and children of all ages with a wide range of conditions, including mental health illness, physical or learning disabilities. They can work in a variety of settings such as hospitals and health organisations, social services, housing, education or voluntary organisations.

To help a person overcome the effects of a disability or illness, the occupational therapist will consider all aspects of the person’s needs, including their physical, psychological, social and environmental needs. Interventions may include providing adaptive equipment, exploring coping strategies, modifying activities or developing new skills.

What’s a typical day for an occupational therapist?

“I arrive at work at 8am and it’s straight out onto the ward with the rest of my team. During handover we discuss each patient with the rest of the multidisciplinary team, considering medical status, mobility, cognition, mood, vision, seating, equipment needs and importantly discharge plans. I pass on the information from handover to my colleagues and prioritise my caseload accordingly.

“On the Acute Stroke Unit we see the new patient’s first, which we see jointly with the physiotherapists. We complete a detailed assessment and devise a treatment plan with the patient. The first part of the morning often means washing and dressing sessions and breakfast, as these are the most relevant functional tasks to work on with patients. During these tasks I am assessing and treating specific stroke difficulties a person may experience that has an impact on their daily lives. I talk to my patients to identify what are their priorities for us to work on together. I provide education to patients on specific symptoms, such as sensory and visual disturbances, and also support them adapt and adjust to the challenges associated with a stroke on their everyday tasks.

As the morning goes on I am involved in discharge discussions with the doctors and other members of the MDT, I speak to my community colleagues to handover our patient’s goals, assessments and treatment plans. Visiting time is always busy as I meet with patients’ visitors, often talking through some of the difficulties post stroke. I complete joint sessions with families and patients, showing them techniques and treatments to support the patients. This can include hoisting, seating, upper limb treatments, cognitive skills training and other everyday activities. As dinner time approaches I can often be supporting patients to be more independent with their meals. I then ensure that my sessions are written up and filed in the patient notes. I then have dinner with the rest of the team before we tackle the afternoon.

We regularly attend discharge planning meetings with patients, their families, and the multidisciplinary team, including social services. On the Stroke Rehabilitation Unit I will also often complete a home assessment at a patient’s property to assess for equipment and observe how the patient functions in their own home. I work closely with our community equipment services ordering equipment for home, along with social services and community therapy teams. I continue with my assessment and treatments sessions in the afternoon, this can include facilitating groups on the ward. At the end of the day I make sure that I have a clear plan for my patients and I am up to date with all my notes. I really feel as though I can add so much value to a patient’s journey during their stay in the hospital.  Our core values are to enable patients to be as independent as possible through patient centred care."

Career paths for an occupational therapist

To become an occupational therapist you will need to study an approved pre-registration programme. Most UK courses are BSc degrees, although postgraduate diplomas, master’s degrees and degree level apprenticeships are also available. There are over 35 universities in the UK that deliver pre-registration occupational therapy programmes accredited by the Royal College of Occupational Therapists.

All pre-registration courses combine both practical placements and academic study.

You will need five GCSE’s at A-C, including English, Maths and often Science, and relevant A-levels or equivalent to the level as required by the university. Entry requirements obtained at A-level can vary depending on the university, so visit their individual websites for further details.

Find out more about how to become an occupational therapist (opens in new window) >

A career in occupational therapy can take you into a wide range of roles from clinical to management to education and beyond.

Why I became an occupational therapist

“I always knew I wanted to work in a ‘therapy’ career but was aware of the many roles available and was unsure which would be right for me, so I arranged some work experience at a local hospital.

During this I was immediately drawn to occupational therapy because of the way in which the OTs focused on patient centred goals. In particular, we saw a young mother with severe back pain and whereas other professionals were fantastic at treating her condition and symptoms, the occupational therapist was the one who focused on what mattered most to the patient - being able to pick up her children and play with them. The occupational therapist developed a treatment plan centred around that goal, which clearly meant everything to the patient. That was when I knew that occupational therapy was the career for me.”

Jayne Seagrave, Senior Occupational Therapist, Trauma and Orthopaedic Inpatient Therapy at UHDB.