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Gertrude Robertson discusses the future shortages of occupational therapists in the U.S.

Photo Credit: Kalawin /iStock Photo

As a field that works with patients of all ages, from varied backgrounds, occupational therapy has become an integral part of the healthcare system. The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) was founded in 1917, and now represents over 200,000 occupational therapists and students across the nation. As an essential service in the healthcare industry, OT professionals help to develop strategies that allow their patients to participate in daily activities that may otherwise be difficult.

As a registered OT residing in New York, Gertrude Robertson takes the time to explain the current industry shortages and the future of occupational therapy.

The Role of Occupational Therapists

Occupational therapists work with various healthcare providers and teams in both inpatient and outpatient settings, helping to provide strategies and treatment plans for patients dealing with chronic pain, injury, illness, or other disabilities that may impede everyday functions.

OTs working in the hospital setting generally work with post-surgical patients (especially neuro or orthopedic surgeries), patients that had previously been seeing an OT, or individuals that require immediate attention. Outpatient OTs generally get referrals from the patient’s family doctor, pediatrician, psychiatrist, or they are arranged by the hospital for patients that are being discharged with a new-onset or diagnosed disorder. OTs can work with OT assistants, who help with various aspects of treatment, but are not involved in the assessment or treatment plans and hold an associate degree.

Education Requirements

An OT, similar to others in the healthcare field, will go through many years of post-secondary education to earn degrees that allow them to practice and become board certified in their respective state. The first step to becoming a registered OT is obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Many chose to complete a Bachelor of Science (BSc) as it helps fulfill many pre-requisites. Students can also attend college for different degrees in areas of their liking, supplementing their education with prerequisites, or taking an extra year if they are undecided about their career plans says Gertrude Robertson. Students then apply to and attend programs that are approved by the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) to complete a master’s degree in Occupational Therapy. These programs are typically 2-3 years long and provide students with extensive hands-on experiences in both the inpatient and outpatient settings.

To become a licensed OT, Gertrude Robertson explains that students must pass the National Board for Certification of Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) with their respective state licensing boards. Gertrude Robertson also highly encourages students to partake in volunteer opportunities within the field to see if it is a good fit during their undergraduate years and to gain valuable experience that would help in their admission OT programs.

Why Choose OT

Many individuals that go into the field do so for the job satisfaction of knowing they are helping and making a difference in people’s daily lives. Being able to see the progression of a patient’s condition is highly rewarding and allows for OTs to feel a sense of fulfillment in their career choice. The field being as diverse as it is, also allows for students to seek out specialities that they feel most comfortable with, such as psychiatry, pediatrics, geriatrics, rehabilitation, low vision, and eating and swallowing. The work environment is also varied, and once graduated, OTs can choose where to practice, be it in a hospital setting, long-term care home, retirement facility, or opening their own clinic.

Gertrude Robertson claims that working in the healthcare field is challenging, but there is no better feeling than helping individual in need.

An Increasing Shortage of Healthcare Professionals

With most baby boomers retiring soon, occupational therapists play a pivotal role in helping these patients stay active and independent in their day to day lives. Their tasks include helping to improve in-home accessibility, developing strategies to simplify self-care activities, and helping with post-surgical care, and other age-related conditions such as dementia, strokes, and arthritis.

While the occupational field has grown almost 25% in the past decade, Gertrude Robertson claims that there are many states currently dealing with professional shortages. A 2015 study assigned letter grades to each state, by taking into consideration various factors such as population, healthcare expenditures, and available OTs. Only a handful of states were assigned an A or B grade, while most fell somewhere in the middle zone. It is estimated that by 2030, there will be approximately 37 states nationwide with a grade of D or below, and the US will experience significant shortages of occupational therapists and their services. Recent reports also show that the states with the greatest shortest ratios will be Arizona, Hawaii, and Utah, while the states with the lowest number of OT jobs will be California, Florida, and Texas.

Experts claim that while the elderly are living longer than the previous generation, there are inevitably more cases of chronic illness that benefit from the skillsets of OTs.

Gertrude Robertson claims that the AOTA and the US government officials need to work on strategies to help rectify the shortages now. The study does expect the field to grow at a rate of 33% in the next decade, it is still expected to fall short of the demand.

Considering a Career as an OT

As students are at home with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a good time for them to begin looking into various career prospects and researching the possibility of a career in occupational therapy. Public Health units should be getting involved in helping showcase the field says Gertrude Robertson, because as the road to becoming an OT takes several years, it will be a while before the supply catches up to the demand.

augusta free press
augusta free press