What Is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy helps patients restart daily activities, like taking care of themselves, working, and playing. It promotes mental health and well-being and addresses challenges around accessibility, equity, and diversity.

Occupational Therapy

If you need help moving, an OT can suggest equipment or assistive devices to make your life easier and safer. They can also recommend exercises and routines that will improve your strength and coordination. Contact OT Montgomery County for professional help.

Occupational therapy, or OT, is health care that helps people of all ages and abilities prevent, manage, or adapt to disabilities and illnesses. OT practitioners use meaningful activities that promote wellness and enable people to perform daily tasks, including bathing, cooking, eating, working, playing, caring for children, and getting dressed.

An OT may recommend special equipment like a wheelchair or an eating aid or teach you how to use it, and they can suggest ways of changing your home, workplace, or school environment to make things easier for you. For example, if you have arthritis and can’t grip a cup, an OT might show you how to hold it in a different way so that it is easier to grasp.

People with chronic diseases, injuries, or disabilities often see an OT, as do the elderly who are experiencing memory loss. Schools sometimes employ OTs to help students with special needs, and some community programs offer OT services to the general public.

People interested in becoming OTs typically have excellent communication and interpersonal skills. They must be compassionate, patient people with a desire to improve the lives of others. Those who are considering pursuing this career path should take science and communication courses in high school, and consider volunteering at nursing homes or children’s hospitals as part of their college experience. Most OTs work in hospitals, rehabilitation or psychiatric hospitals, private practices, clinics and offices, schools, and the community. They usually work 40 plus hours per week, during the daytime. They may also need to travel for fieldwork, which is part of the education process. The World Federation of Occupational Therapists sets minimum standards for OT educational programs.


Occupational therapy begins with the assessment of a patient’s ability to perform everyday activities that are important to their lives. Using a variety of assessments and tools, therapists are able to identify the areas that require improvement for their patients. These may include evaluating a patient’s activity tolerance, which refers to how long they can work before becoming too tired, assessing musculoskeletal function such as determining arm strength by measuring the range of motion of the elbow and wrist, or examining the senses such as hearing or vision, which are used in daily living.

Using these tools, the therapist is able to determine what kind of support a patient needs to complete each activity in order to maximize their function and reduce barriers. They can recommend adaptive equipment such as aids for getting dressed, shower chairs or medication organizers to assist with self-care and increase independence. They can also help patients adapt their environment by suggesting home safety modifications.

For children, the OT will often evaluate handwriting skills, balance and coordination, sensory processing such as touch and smell and cognitive functions like memory, attention and concentration. They might also test a child’s fine motor dexterity, for example, by administering the nine-hole peg test. This simple assessment tool consists of just a small box, pegs and a stopwatch to measure the child’s dexterity by filling the holes in the box with different colors of pegs and then removing them in a specific amount of time.

The MoCA (Memory, Concentration and Executive Functioning Screen) is an excellent way for therapists to assess a client’s cognition quickly. This simple test requires no preparation and can be completed in 15 minutes.


OTs use the information from the evaluation and assessment to create a plan of treatment that will help you regain your daily skills. This may include teaching you new ways to do things, such as putting on clothes or using the bathroom. They can also recommend tools, such as a walker or wheelchair, that will make it easier to get around. They may suggest specific exercises or activities to do, or they might ask you to try different types of equipment or tools to see if one might work better for you than another.

Occupational therapy is unique among healthcare professions in its focus on helping patients regain their daily lives rather than treating a specific illness or injury. This is especially true for children and young adults with developmental coordination disorder (DCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders, or physical disabilities. In these cases, OTs often work with parents and teachers to develop activities that will help the child or young adult manage their condition.

OTs also work with older adults in all age groups to improve their quality of life and allow them to participate in meaningful activities, despite limitations from injuries or illnesses. For example, OTs can perform driver evaluations to determine if an elderly person is safe to continue driving. They also address common challenges in this population, such as aging in place, low vision, and Alzheimer’s or dementia. OTs are also involved in reducing isolation in this population by creating community outreach programs, promoting awareness of resources, and working with social services to ensure that people receive the support they need.


The OT will ask the person questions about their abilities and goals, then watch them perform activities at home, school or work. Based on this information, the therapist will create a treatment plan. This could include prescribing equipment or methods to help a person carry out these activities, such as recommending using a wheelchair for someone with physical disabilities or teaching the use of an eating aid.

While other healthcare professionals like nurses will work to treat a patient’s medical condition, occupational therapists focus on helping people resume the activities and roles that define who they are. For example, after surgery an OT will help a client resume their previous roles in daily life such as taking care of themselves and performing their work duties, whereas a nurse would assist a patient with post-operative pain management.

Occupational therapy practitioners are often a part of multidisciplinary teams and may collaborate with other health care professionals to develop programs to prevent diseases or encourage healthy lifestyles. In addition to providing direct services, OTs also conduct education classes and community outreach programs to promote awareness about a range of health-related topics.

Unlike doctors, nurses or physiotherapists, occupational therapists do not have to graduate from medical school, but instead have to complete an accredited program of study (like the one offered at Pacific). In addition, they must pass a rigorous national certification exam and continue their education to maintain licensure. This combination of advanced academic training and hands-on experience makes OTs unique among healthcare professionals. Occupational therapists work with all types of populations and in many different settings, including hospitals, schools, community clinics, and private practice. They can be found working with clients of all ages, from premature infants to adults who are recovering from brain trauma or amputations. They are also frequently engaged in geriatric practice, treating older adults to enable them to maintain independence in their homes and communities as they age.

Goal Setting

Creating meaningful occupational therapy goals is key to client motivation, tracking progress, and getting reimbursed. OTs commonly use the SMART format for goal setting; this stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time Based. SMART goals are easy for clients to understand, and provide clarity on what is to be accomplished.

When goal setting with a client, an OT will work together to identify their specific problems. Then, they will prioritize these problems and create a collaborative plan to address them. This will help the therapist narrow their focus and provide highly targeted interventions. Ultimately, this leads to better client satisfaction with their services because they are able to see results in the areas that matter most to them.

The next step in goal setting is to create a measurable way to track progress towards these goals. For example, the therapist may use standardized questionnaires to measure client perception of their difficulty level or pain levels, or performance-based assessments to track skills. This data can be recorded by the therapist or a designated person like a teacher, healthcare professional, or family member.

To make the goals attainable, they should be realistic. For instance, if a patient wants to learn how to draw independently, an OT might set a long term goal of learning to do so by discharge, and short term goals of drawing a flower or a 5-part person. These small milestones will allow the therapist to see how close they are to their long term objective, and they can give the client another boost of inspiration once each one is accomplished.

If you need some tips and instruction on how to create SMART goals, our OT Toolkit includes a goal writing worksheet template and a bank of short and long term goal examples for different performance components and diagnoses. It also provides outcome measure and OT goal writing samples for adults!