We chatted to Sophie, a paediatrics occupational therapist who works for a private practice.
Occupational therapy (OT) is all about helping people who have health challenges re-engage in their daily activities or occupations – things like getting dressed, cooking meals and driving.
FN: Why did you pick Occupational Therapy?
I was really drawn to working in health but nothing felt quite right. Nursing seemed like the obvious choice at high school, but then I heard about occupational therapy. I liked the idea of ‘case management’ and working with the same patient across a long period of time.
I was also attracted by the diversity of the job. I can work in a hospital where I might provide acute discharge planning, risk assessments, cognition assessments, or function based rehab. Or, I could work in aged care where I provide meaningful engagement and end of life care, home mods, falls assessment – that kind of thing. Or, I can switch things up and go private practice, specialising in functional capacity assessments, expert witnessing, ergonomics assessments, manual handling, return to work case management and more. I can work in paediatrics, mental health, or even become a specialist in driving assessments/ vehicle modifications.
FN: Which branch do you work in now?
I am a paediatric occupational therapist. Which means I work with children specifically.
FN: Did you always work in paediatrics?
No, I worked in acute care with adults for one year. I enjoyed that job and loved the clients, but it wasn’t quite the right fit for me. After that, I made the jump into paediatrics. The team I work with provides school-based, clinic-based, and home-based early intervention services for children with disabilities.
For example, I am currently working with a child who has anxiety, he acts very differently at school verses at home. So I’m helping him develop these social skills while also modifying his school environment so that he can perform better.
FN: What is an example of a patient you looked after in acute care?
It’s pretty diverse, but an example was a middle-aged man who was suffering from a traumatic brain injury and I need to help him develop his independent living skills, like cooking.
FN: How do the sessions work?
The way OT works is we start with an initial assessment, where we figure out what they are struggling with and chat about their health. Then we focus on intervention. After the assessment, I go home and I write out a plan with goals. Then I focus on regular treatment to help them reach these goals.
In a day, I can be seeing 4-8 patients depending on my schedule. I would say the average is probably around 5 a day. My actual sessions can range in time depending on their needs, it’s usually 30-45 minutes.
FN: It’s a four year university course, how well were you prepared for the job when you gradated?
I think any health professional would agree that most of your key learning will happen on the job. At university you will do mandatory placements where you do clinical observation. This is shadowing an experienced OT in their workplace. I always recommend to OT students, or even occupational therapists who are thinking about switching gears to paediatrics, that the best thing to do is to observe paediatric OTs in action. That is the best way to truly get a feel for what a paediatric OT does day to day. Also, school-based OT is a bit of its own world, so if at all possible, I would recommend a school-based placement at university before graduating and deciding to move into the complexities that can come with working in a school.
FN: Do you work with other professionals?
Yes! I work with teachers, physiotherapists, support workers and social workers, speech pathologists as well as the families of my patients.
FN: Where do OTs work?
OTs can work in hospitals, rehab facilities, clinics, or with private practice like me. Heaps of my friends actually moved interstate for jobs, so you don’t have to stay local if you don’t want to.
FN: How do you feel after a shift?
I think most OTs would agree that it’s a super rewarding job, you can see the changes every week and you grow such a great bond with the patients. Seeing how excited they are when they make progress makes me really happy.
But obviously some days are really hard.
Some patients don’t progress like you thought they would and they get angry with themselves. Imagine not being able to do something that used to be simple, like picking up a fork. Some sessions they have moments of frustration but I try and keep them positive.
I am a very sensitive person, which is a great quality to have as an OT, but it can also pose a challenge when interacting with families that are going through emotionally challenging situations on a day to day basis. This is especially true in early intervention, when in any given day, you may encounter a family who just found out that their child has autism, another family who is coming to terms with the long-term implications of having a child with a disability, and a mother who is distressed because her child is not eating as much as she (or her paediatrician) would like. It is an emotional rollercoaster for parents as they move through the new territory of having a child with special needs.
For those who aren’t as emotional as me (ha) – the paperwork is probably the most challenging part.
FN: How is occupational therapy different from physical therapy?
I get asked this a lot. Occupational therapists and physical therapists are quite similar in some ways; we both focus on rehabilitation – but it’s how we go about our work that differentiates the two professions.
The key difference is that occupational therapy focuses more on the improvement of daily activities while physical therapy focuses more on specific improvement of body movements. You can think of a physical therapist like a human body mechanic, and an occupational therapist as a guide to the reintegration into normal life.
FN: Can you give me an example?
Say someone had lost the ability to drive via an injury. In that scenario a physical therapist might work to improve a patient’s elbow range of motion so she can bend her elbow enough to use a steering wheel. The occupational therapist will work with the patient to use that range of motion, along with any necessary adaptive equipment, to return to the daily task of driving. So there is a lot of cross over between the two.
How to be an OT:
- Finish Year 12
- Each university has different requirements but you may need to study maths, biology and/or physics in high school. Refer to your university website for pre-requisite subjects.
- Study a four (4) year Occupational Therapy undergraduate degree that has been approved by the Occupational Therapy Council and that allows you to register with AHPRA.
- Or study another Bachelor’s degree and then study a 2-2.5 year Masters of Occupational Therapy that has been approved by the Occupational Therapy Council and that allows you to register with AHPRA.
- Upon graduating, you are a fully qualified Occupational Therapist.