What is occupational therapy?

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I’m proud of being an occupational therapist, but I don’t always like explaining it.

Occupational therapy is a profession that a lot of people don’t understand, some people think it is all about work and others confuse it with occupational health.

In June 2016 an occupational therapist sent a confession into the Simon Mayo BBC radio 2 show, she stated that she was not going to give her job title or explain her role as it was too confusing.  It soon became clear to myself and all occupational therapists across the land that were listening that she was an occupational therapist.

It was a shame that she didn’t want to explain our profession, what a great opportunity to fly the flag for occupational therapy on national radio at prime time.  But also completely understandable that she would not want to take this task on, and endeavour to succinctly explain on national radio.  Occupational therapists were listening and an occupational therapist from the OT Practice was on the programme the following day explaining very well what occupational therapy is.  The profession sighed a huge sigh of relief.

You may have heard that we are called OTs too, that’s right, but I’m not using the phrase here as I think it confuses matters more, and that as a profession we need to use our full title to promote occupational therapy.

Some people say that the physiotherapist will support you to walk again, but the occupational therapist will support you to put your dancing shoes on and get back on the dance floor.  An explanation I heard when I was studying was that the doctor will help you live longer and the occupational therapist will help you live better.

The trouble is with explaining occupational therapy is that the profession is so broad and occupational therapists work in so many settings.  We are dual trained in physical health and mental health, we work in paediatrics, orthopaedics, social care, learning disabilities, hospice, hospitals, community, the list is endless, but we could pop up anywhere.  All of these roles will be different, so there is not a set answer for what is occupational therapy?

But let me have a stab at explaining it for you here.  Occupational therapy is a profession that promotes health and well being through occupation. Occupational therapy focuses on enabling people to take part in their hobbies and activities despite illness, disability, mental health or emotional difficulties.  We are motivated and inspired by the things that we want to do, this is what gets us out of bed in the morning!

We view occupation as being anything that we do, so this includes having a shower and brushing your teeth, paid or voluntary work, leisure and sports activities, even sleeping.  While we can take these things for granted, if we have an accident, illness or disability it can become much more difficult and exhausting to do any of our activities or our occupations.  If you are fortunate enough to be fit, well and able bodied how would you cope if you broke an arm or a leg?

After illness or injury it can be difficult to participate in your every day roles, and maintain structure and routine, especially if your mind and body are affected.  When you have barriers to achieving your goals an occupational therapist can support you as an individual to accomplish what is important to you, by building on your skills and adapting your activities and environment.

After my breast cancer surgery I was unable to run, so I had to adapt and substitute running with walking.  I could not reach or lift things so again I had to adapt by placing things in reach, and getting help with the heavy stuff.  I was fatigued so I had to learn to pace myself throughout the day and I had trouble sleeping so I developed a good sleep hygiene routine.

I was being my own occupational therapist, making adaptations to the way I do things and to my environment to enable me to live life my way, and continue doing my occupations.

This is what occupational therapists do, we treat the person, not the diagnosis, we find out what is important to you, what you’re having difficulty with and support you to live life to the full.  We are problem solvers, and love to be creative in our approach, we treat you holistically and will work on small goals with you to reach the big ones.

If you or somebody you know are living with or beyond cancer and you think you or they could benefit from occupational therapy please get in touch.

From the Harp is based in Portsmouth, Hampshire and operates in the city and surrounding areas on the south coast of the UK.  Phone or Skype consultations are available.

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Copyright © 2017 From the Harp

37 thoughts on “What is occupational therapy?

      1. Indeed! It is quite interesting doing travel OT. How are job prospects for OTs in the UK? I’ve thought about working abroad, but not sure where to start/where to look. If coming to the states appeals to you some time, feel free to ask anything 🙂

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  1. Beautiful post! A doctor once told me that he likes to see Occupational therapists as the engineers of health. We engineer peoples environments, bodies and brains into something that enables them to participate😄

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  2. Good on you, people like you have made people I know happier,. Sorry it’s going to follow with a complaint though, it takes over a year to get any request/suggestion from OTs through the system

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    1. Thanks Valerie. It’s good to hear that occupational therapy has helped people you know to be happier, and hopefully to live life to the full. I agree waiting lists are too long, which is frustrating, there’s so much occupational therapy can do to help people we like to start working with somebody ASAP.

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  3. I totally agree that we should use our full title and not abbreviate it to OT. I’ve been doing that for years, and it makes a difference to people’s attitude. You never hear of a physiotherapist calling themselves PT. Good article

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    1. Hi Pat, good, I take my lead from occupational therapists like you, I think it’s so important not to abbreviate. You’re right, nobody calls a physiotherapist a PT! Glad you enjoyed my blog, thanks for commenting.

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  4. Having been around veterans all my life, and luckily enough to have worked with them for 8 years I like to quote their definitions. “Occupational Therapists lets us get those old toys from the toybox” “Its like having our own lifestyle/lifeskill coach” “There is more to it than just painting in the activity centre, its about living again” — great blog

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    1. Thanks Karen glad you liked it. Your job sounds fascinating, what a great client group to be working with. I agree definitions using clients own language has to be the best way to take our explanations forward. I love ‘getting old toys from the toy box’. Thanks for sharing.

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  5. I love Occupatioal Therapy. When asked what it is I quote a case history of a patient referred to me. The person was “chair shaped” couldn’t move, was carried from A to B, depressed, had a baby, had never been able to do anything for the baby. Within weeks this person was starting to move using her initiative to move safely around the assessment kitchen. Within months was in a new appropriate adapted home and by the end of the year was independently mobilising, independently looking after her family and shopping for the baby. Occupational Therapy had referred to and worked with Physiotherapy and Social Work. The was a fantastic case to describe Occupational Therapy and how their intervention resulted in an independent happy person.

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    1. Thanks for sharing the power of occupational therapy Sylvia, what a fantastic bit of occupational therapy work you did, truly holistic, life changing, and enabling your client to live life to the full.

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  6. What’s the difference between a local authority occupational therapist and a hospital one?. My daughter has both but when asking both a question they pass the buck as a oh that’s not my job that’s the other one?. Are either qualified to write medical advice/opinions in reports. Surely if it’s about well being and leading a life as healthy and normal as possible with a disability they should be doing this in the home not one for home, separate for school or out and about. Glad I seen this post x

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    1. Thanks for your comment, it’s great you have two occupational therapists, although it is a holistic profession we’re often constrained in our scope of practice by what the service is commissioned for. Have a chat with your occupational therapists and find out what they can and can’t do for your daughter, if you identify gaps perhaps you could find other services that you would both find useful. Your occupational therapists should be able to signpost to other services. Good luck 🙂

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      1. Thank you,I’m just confused at what they can or cannot do. My daughter is almost 13yrs old and I’m still having to carry her up/down stairs, in/out of bath/bed ect. It all seems very budget based in Wiltshire despite what is said no one seems to be able to actually do alot 🤔. Just wondered what the difference is between NHS and local authority OT’s .

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  7. Great blog! I am due to graduate this year. I feel that there is not enough advertising or marketing for Occupational Therapy, even after all these years. It’s crazy that so many people do not recognise our role.

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    1. Thank Nicole, I agree it’s a real shame occupational therapy is still misunderstood and undervalued for what it can achieve and even more reason for us all to be ‘loud and proud’ about it.

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  8. Hi Alice, What a great and heartfelt pieve of writing (or should I say ‘Harpfelt!’). We’ll certainly share it with our occupational therapy students here at the University of Brighton – and us tutors certainly remember your time training with us fondly. Though on a light-hearten mark I wonder if I told you the story of when I was an occupational therapy student (also at Brighton): I was doing some part-time work on a psychiatric ward where one of the patients asked me what I did most of the time – I said I was an ‘occupational therapy’ student (not abbreviated) and then gave a bit of a long-winded description. The patient then replied ‘That sounds a bit like “OT”?’ Anyway – I think your point remains valid! Good luck. Josh

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    1. Hi Josh, thanks for sharing, and for your ‘harpfelt’ comments, and I hope your students find it beneficial. That’s a great story, sounds like that point has always been valid, and continues to be! Time to be ‘loud and proud’ about occupational therapy.

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  9. Great post- I am a second year mature student in Occupational therapy and love everything it encompasses- but explaining it can be a nightmare! I love reading other people who blog about it and love to feel a part of this huge community of therapists who love what they do 🙂 x

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    1. Hi Amy glad you liked the blog, it’s been great to open up discussion and find out how others explain occupational therapy around the world, and feel part of our wider community. Good luck with the rest of your studies.

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