Hospital Biz: Occupational Therapy - What it is and How it Helps

April 5, 2016

"I'm 90 years old... I don't need a job!"

…That’s one of the more amusing responses Occupational Therapist Olivia Lockhart has heard. She understands, though, as important as this treatment is for people, it is still much less known than its therapeutic cousins: Physical and Speech.

Occupational therapy is used to help people with a physical, mental or cognitive obstacle perform everyday activities with ease. Patients, who range from pediatric to geriatric, have suffered an illness, injury, disease or deficit that disrupts their ability to perform normal routines and habits. For example, a diabetic with foot amputations can still drive in a car equipped with hand pedals. A person recovering from surgery may need seating and positioning recommendations to reduce shearing forces or pressure on the body. An aging individual may need home supports to maintain independent living.   

“Our goal is to go beyond treating the deficit. We want to give individuals greater independence, the ability to live their lives as they desire, with proper self-care and doable life skills,” says Olivia Lockhart, MS, OTR/L. 

In order to do that, Occupational Therapists (OTs) work with patients to determine their desired life skills and goals. They evaluate which areas need improvement, and then work with the patient to strengthen these abilities.

Some of this involves teaching self-awareness such as safe ranges of motion and joint protection strategies. There is also the physical piece, since mobility, endurance, balance, and strength play such a big role in daily activities.

Lockhart particularly enjoys working with stroke victims experiencing upper or lower extremity paralysis. This neurological event can be devastating, but helping the patient re-gain motor control and sensory function is an amazing experience. “Clients are discouraged by the disturbances in the use of their hands, arms, trunk, and legs. As we educate and re-train patients and their families on how to dress, walk to the kitchen, get in/out of a car, and prepare meals, our patients begin to see that they will be able to enjoy the life experiences they thought they’d never again have.”

Occupational therapy often includes an evaluation of the client’s home and other environments (e.g., workplace, school) to eliminate environmental barriers to daily activities.  OTs will recommend adaptive equipment for the patient and then train the patient and their family or caretakers on how to use it.

“Depending on the severity of illness, injury, disease or deficit, individuals may receive occupational therapy for a couple of days, weeks, or even months,” says Lockhart.

“A client who needs energy conservation training might complete this training in one or two treatment sessions. A client with a severe neurological event, such as a stroke or spinal cord injury, may need months to recover these skills.”

Helping people return to a “normal” life is no small task, and in order to do it, one needs a firm understanding of many subjects.

To become an occupational therapist, one must graduate from accredited master's degree program, pass multiple Level I and II fieldworks, and pass a national certification exam.

Start to certification can take six to eight years depending on the program, and once certified, OTs must maintain their credentials through annual continuing education hours. Occupational Therapy Assistants (OTAs) must graduate from an accredited associate's degree program, pass multiple fieldworks, pass a national certification exam, and maintain credentials with annual education. Most OTA programs can be completed in about 2 years.

“It’s a lot of work, with studies ranging from neurology to kinesiology to pediatrics to geriatrics to courses in human activity,” says Lockhart, “but the information is interesting and practical, and the rewards are irreplaceable.”

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Olivia Lockhart, MS, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist at Providence Health received her Masters of Science in Occupational Therapy from Indiana University. NBCOT-certified for almost 3 years, Lockhart has a BBA in Business Management with minor in Organizational Communications from Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, TN. Locakhart isa guest facilitator for an amputee support group (for both amputees and their families) that meets the 1st Thursday of every month. Feel free to contact her for more information about this support group via email.