How Do You Define Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy? Whats that?

The question is inevitable. Most Occupational Therapists are continuously asked to explain what it is that they do. After all, the word “occupation” suggests a job, or a profession, so the title itself can be misleading. While the modifiers “physical” and “speech” indicate the focus of that particular kind of therapy, the term “occupational” might suggest a therapy that focuses on job skills.

Certainly an Occupational Therapist might prepare a patient to function in a work environment, but the broader focus of OT is on any activity, or occupation, that is meaningful to an individual or necessary to live a full, independent life. To quote the American Occupational Therapist Association, Occupational Therapy allows patients to carry out “the job of living.”

I’m tired of explaining what Occupational Therapy is!”

There’s no doubt that the distinction is confusing. The 11,000+ members of a Facebook group called “I’m tired of explaining what Occupational Therapy is!” indicate a common frustration surrounding public misconceptions. While most people have a general understanding of speech therapy and physical therapy, many people have never heard of occupational therapy, much less know what it is.

But does it really matter if your friends and relatives understand what you do for a living? Well, maybe not, but the implications for the public at large are concerning. If people aren’t aware of what Occupational Therapy has to offer, how will they know to seek treatment?

Is functional therapy the answer?

This concern is precisely what motivated Occupational Therapist Ed Kaine to establish the American League of Functional Therapists (ALOFT). The new association’s objective is to increase awareness of the purpose of Occupational Therapy by re-branding it under the name “Functional Therapy.” Kaine focuses on the word “function” because Occupational Therapists use “functional” activities to achieve the best patient outcome. While the model is catching on in other fields, Kaine maintains that Occupational Therapists are leading the movement because they hold “the most functional skill base in healthcare.” His organization is pursuing a Collective Trademark for the titles “Registered Functional Therapist” and “Registered Functional Therapy Associate”.

Kaine hopes Occupational Therapists seeking a more relevant name for their profession will use the RFT title in addition to their OT or COTA credentials, not as a replacement. “We certainly don’t want to anger people who are vested in the name ‘Occupational Therapy,'” Kaine explains. “We recognize the excellent work of our governing body in the NBCOT and the AOTA have really helped to ensure the place of Occupational Therapy thus far.”

The movement doesn’t seem to have gained enough steam to anger anyone (yet), but Occupational Therapist and ADVANCE blogger, Allie Hafez, recently expressed her concerns about how the re-branding could potentially undermine the profession. She worries that the popular use of RFT credentials could imply that OTs without them are lacking the skills to address “functional” challenges.

Hafez also takes issue with the word “function,” insisting the term is of limited descriptive value. She welcomes questions about her job title and uses the confusion as an opportunity to educate the public one conversation at a time. In an ADVANCE blog post addressing the ALOFT movement, Hafez says, “I celebrate being in a profession that doesn’t ‘fence me in’ with easy definitions or descriptions.”

Creating awareness

It’s never easy to summarize the creative techniques a therapist of any specialty uses to improve a patient’s quality of life, but as an occupational therapy professional it is essential that you do your part to create public awareness. While Occupational Therapists may face a unique challenge, all therapists are tasked with educating the public about the benefits of their specific type of therapy because knowing what healthcare options are available is a critical part of accessing care.