Gertrude Robertson Explains the Ins & Outs of Occupational Therapy

If you have a child with a disability, elderly parents, or are familiar with the impacts of severe injury, chances are you have heard about occupational therapists. Perhaps a hospital or doctor has recommended reaching out to one. Whatever the case, becoming familiar with occupational therapists and their services can make life more manageable and, in some cases, more meaningful.

What is Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy is often associated with workplace modifications that help people do their job more comfortably and efficiently, but it is so much more. Gertrude Robertson, an occupational therapist in Brooklyn, New York, explains the profession as one of the only services that can actually help patients at any stage in their lives do the things they want and need to do. In the field, ‘occupations’ are defined as daily activities, which can range from self-care (like getting dressed and eating), to enjoying leisure activities (such as gardening, sports, or playing cards), to rehabilitation (from injuries and/or illness).

Occupational therapists are frequently employed by hospitals, rehabilitation centers, community centers, community mental health services, private healthcare companies, corporations, schools and universities, and even various levels of government, which demonstrates their breadth of knowledge and ability to change lives. There are innumerable ways one’s life can change, and an occupational therapist can help clients adjust to those changes. For example, beyond the healthcare system, occupational therapists can also be found in prisons, helping inmates adjust to life in and prepare for life outside of the facility. They also work with in mental health, helping patients and workers find coping strategies to get through their days.

The Role of an Occupational Therapist

The chief goal of an occupational therapist, says Robertson, is to take a holistic approach to bettering the lives of patients. So, an occupational therapist can often find themselves partnering with a patient or client’s healthcare team, including doctors, pharmacists, physiotherapists and more. Working within the team, the occupational therapist is trained to see the big picture and suggest methods for the client to overcome their individual hurdles.

An occupational therapist is a highly trained individual, as they must be in order to be effective in their role. In order to best understand a client’s needs and work with other healthcare providers, an occupational therapist must have a detailed understanding of the healthcare system in which they and their clients operate, understand the ramifications of various health problems and disabilities, and be well versed in a broad range of solutions to fit the individuals they work with. Occupational therapy is a regulated profession, says Robertson, who has gone through the process herself. Professional therapists must study physiology and biology in their undergraduate degrees and then go on to achieve a master’s degree in occupational therapy. Additionally, because they often work with vulnerable members of the community, they must also complete one thousand hours of supervised fieldwork before they can become certified. Only then can aspiring therapists take the examination with the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy to obtain their license.

Working with an occupational therapist starts with an individual evaluation where the therapist will assess the client’s needs and goals. This may include a discussion about work or overall lifestyle and a dive into the client’s limitations. The occupational therapist will often evaluate the client’s environment both at work and at home, and in some cases where the patient prefers to spend time, such as at a community center. The therapist will then create an action plan, says Robertson, with suggestions for specialized equipment, personalized workarounds for daily tasks, and perhaps even training for vocational goals. The therapist will work with the patient to teach them how to use equipment or cope with everyday struggles. Finally, the therapist will perform an outcomes evaluation to determine whether the plan was successfully implemented, whether it helped the client achieve their goals to the furthest extent possible, and whether changes need to be made to that plan.

Occupational therapy is an incredibly rewarding career, says Robertson. For those interested in helping others in their day to day lives and making a difference in the community, this type of work has no equal. There are so many specialties to pursue simply because occupational therapy can touch countless situations across a lifespan. For example, in hospitals, occupational therapists can be found in several different departments. In the emergency room, they help hospital staff assess patients and make recommendation on admissions, connect patients with community services, and advocate for their patient’s needs and well being. In neurology departments, occupational therapists can be found working with patients who need to learn how to navigate their environments in wheelchairs for the first time after a spinal injury or supporting patients who suddenly find themselves struggling to express themselves after a brain injury. Even in cancer wards, occupational therapists are often on staff to help patients adjust to treatment, advising them on how to reserve energy while still participating in their own lives. For cancer survivors too, occupational therapists help patient reintegrate by creating strategies for patients to ease back into work and social activities.

There is no question that occupational therapists have the capacity to change lives for the better, says Robertson. They are an integral part of many healthcare teams and offer services to some of the most in need individuals in our communities. From offering parents strategies to better care for their children on the autism spectrum to providing end of life care to the elderly, occupational therapists do far more than advise office workers on how best to ergonomically set up their workstations (while this advice is still valuable). So, the next time you or your loved ones experience a change or think you could use some help on better managing injury, disability, or illness, consider an occupational therapist.

Occupational Therapy from Brooklyn, New York