What do occupational therapists do?

Following yesterday’s post of the “OT rap” I have been musing on why occupational therapy remains (if it does?) a rather misunderstood profession. The question ‘what is occupational therapy’ is one that has been posed many times and the need to explain it something that many in the profession find hard to sustain (thus the rap artists previously noted).

For me then, the last two weeks have been something of a revelation. First, in the new series about district nurses ‘Frankie’, the protagonist herself alludes to the need to refer one of her many clients to an OT for an assessment. For what remains a little vague, but none the less there we were amongst the great and the good in the community team (sadly however, not physically on the screen). Similarly, we pop up in the British film ‘Another Year’ (physically this time, albeit in a supportive role) as a young woman working with the elderly in a well known London hospital.   Here the role is rehabilitation, definitely worthy and clearly warrantable. We also got a mention on radio 4 Woman’s hour in January 2013:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p013fk1v013 with the OT doing a paraffin wax bath for a young man’s hands and stretching the joints for range of movement.

The warm glow of being mentioned at all was, on all three occasions, made even more astonishing when no-one asked what it was the OT did. Has our time come I ask myself? Are we becoming at last mainstream and understood?

Well I guess what this quick overview of our growing fame represents nicely is the variety of interventions we use, and no doubt this is part of the problem for others in understanding (and us in articulating) exactly, in a nutshell, what it is we do. On top of this apparent diversity, which is of course, for those in the know, the key focus of the profession ie using a variety of activity based interventions to ensure people are as independent as possible in whatever it is they have to do or want to do on daily basis, there is  a second problem: if what we do both uses as intervention methods and improves independence and/or quality of life in everyday activities (or occupations thus occupational therapists) then, as Reilly (1962:1) very cogently noted we are dealing with things that can seem very ordinary (daily occupations) but it can have a very big impact on people’s lives:

The wide and gaping chasm, which exists between the complexity of illness and the commonplaceness of our treatment tools, is, and always will be, both the pride and the anguish of our profession.

To me, whilst this truth does hold, it does seem that occupational therapy is now a profession that is better understood and is genuinely valued in terms of making a difference to people’s lives…..But that doesn’t mean to say that more PR is not needed. It is always good to help the phoenix fly and we can all do that…….Now then what about a TV programme on the life of an OT working in the NHS…hmmm …..acute, A&E, mental health…community?…Or social services? Or what about the third sector or private practice…..I could go on….

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