If you have experienced an accident or injury that impacts your ability to complete everyday activities, such as getting dressed or driving to work, your primary care doctor may recommend occupational therapy. These deficits may be temporary, such as issues associated with a stroke or traumatic brain injury, or the patient could be facing permanent disability, such as a senior suffering from progressive dementia. Occupational therapy is also used to help children with disabilities develop and gain skills to help toward autonomy and independence. 

If you or someone that you care about has been referred to an occupational therapist, here are the things to know before the first visit: 

What is an occupational therapist? 

Occupational therapy involves assisting others with their ability to complete activities of daily living (ADLs) such as dressing, using the bathroom, eating and bathing. Occupational therapists make recommendations for activities and adaptive devices or equipment to assist the patient in ADLs as well as in overall development. Occupational therapists are holistic practitioners, which means they focus on all aspects of health and well-being, though these providers are not medical doctors per se. These are graduate-level clinicians that look at all areas of wellness, including the environment (home, workplace, school) to determine the best approaches and interventions to help the patient. 

Reasons to see an occupational therapist 

People see occupational therapists for help with daily tasks and function. These deficits may be caused by an underlying medical condition, such as having suffered a stroke or a head injury that requires support in returning to previous levels of function. Therapists use physical support, adaptive devices, and medical equipment to assist the individual with retaining as much as independence as possible, despite physical or mental impairment. 

What does an occupational therapist do? 

Occupational therapists help people of all ages engage and participate in the activities and things that they want to do daily. Some occupational therapy interventions might include helping children with disabilities navigate social situations or supporting seniors going through cognitive changes due to dementia. In essence, the therapist's role breaks down to these functions: 

  • Make a collaborative evaluation and set goals in tandem with the patient and their family. 
  • Customize intervention tactics to assist and improve the patient's ability to perform ADLs. 
  • Measure and gauge the efficacy of the treatment plan, and change it when needed to meet the goals. 
  • Assess home, work or school situation to determine adaptive equipment that could prove useful. 
  • Train the patient and offer support in how to use adaptive devices, equipment and resources. 

How is an occupational therapist certified? 

Occupational therapists have completed a bachelor degree program with a curriculum that puts emphasis on areas that are relevant to the field, such as biology, kinesiology and psychology. Most candidates then move on to a graduate program that focuses in on occupational therapy. 

After the student has completed the coursework and practicum, they are eligible to take the national examination for certification as an occupational therapist. When the graduate can produce documentation of their degree and passing the exam, they can apply to the state for licensure. 

Referral and research 

You will likely need a referral for occupational therapy from your primary care provider or a specialist, particularly if you will want health insurance to cover the cost of occupational therapy. Consider referring to online resources for help finding an occupational therapist or provider in your area. It is also a good idea to read doctor reviews and feedback from other patients before scheduling a consultation or appointment with a specialist. You can search and review occupational therapists at CareDash.com.

Questions you should ask your occupational therapist during your first visit 

Your occupational therapist will be asking you many questions related to your everyday activities, medical history and the reasons your family doctor referred you to their service. You should also plan to ask your therapist a few questions to understand what you can expect from occupational therapy. 

Some questions to ask your occupational therapist are: 

  • What can I expect during my first visit? 
  • What specific training or experience do you have related to my condition? 
  • How long will the appointment last? 
  • How many appointments do I need to notice an improvement in my condition or function? 
  • What can I expect regarding results based on your experience? 
  • What can I do to facilitate improvement outside of the occupational therapy? 
  • What lifestyle changes should I make? 
  • What other practitioners or medical services providers should be involved in my treatment and recovery? 
  • Are there any alternative treatments to occupational therapy for my condition or that will improve my function? 

Also, ask your occupational therapist about a treatment plan to maximize your function and to measure progress and improvements. The treatment plan will change and adapt to the individual patient and the marked changes in function. 

When a person suffers an episode or injury that impacts how they perform in everyday life, they may be referred to an occupational therapist. These practitioners attempt to help people overcome any struggles associated with ADLs, as well as make life a bit easier overall through the use of adaptive devices and equipment. From eating and using the bathroom to driving a car and navigating a social situation, occupational therapists provide the tools patients need to face these challenges and maintain as much independence as possible.