What Does an Occupational Therapist Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills & More

A day in the life of an occupational therapist: Review patients’ medical history and assess their needs, Develop treatment plans for patients with specific goals, Guide patients to perform tasks to meet their goals

The Balance / Theresa Chiechi 

An occupational therapist is a health professional who is responsible for helping patients regain their ability to perform daily living and work activities. Their patients have generally lost these abilities because of mental, physical, developmental, or emotional conditions.

This is one member of a rehabilitation team that may also include a physical therapist, speech pathologist, psychologist, and social worker. Occupational therapists may work with specific populations such as children or the elderly, or they may work in specialized settings, including mental health institutions and skilled nursing facilities.

Occupational Therapist Duties & Responsibilities

This job generally requires the ability to do the following:

  • Review patients’ medical history and asses their condition and needs
  • Evaluate patients' ability to do certain tasks
  • Confer with physicians, patients and their families, nurses, therapists, social workers, and other members of a patient's care team
  • Develop a treatment plan for patients with specific goals and tasks that will help them meet those goals
  • Guide patients to perform tasks to meet their goals
  • Demonstrate exercises that can help patients better perform everyday tasks and relieve pain
  • Evaluate a patient’s home or workplace and identify potential improvements based on their needs
  • Educate a patient’s family about how to help care for and accommodate them
  • Recommend and teach patients how to use adaptive equipment that will help them with daily living, such as wheelchairs and eating aids
  • Assess patients' progress against goals and prepare reports for healthcare providers and insurance agencies

Individual occupational therapy plans differ depending on patients' needs, but all strive to develop, increase, or maintain independence in performing tasks of daily living.

Occupational Therapist Salary

Occupational therapists' salaries can vary depending on location, experience, and and industry.

  • Median Annual Salary: $83,200
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: $120,440
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $54,560

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017

Education Requirements & Qualifications

To be an occupational therapist, you'll need a master's degree in occupational therapy from a program that the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) has accredited. Some OTs have a doctorate.

  • Undergraduate Education: To be admitted to graduate school, you will need a bachelor's degree. Biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, liberal arts, and anatomy are all appropriate college majors.
  • Graduate Programs in Occupational Therapy: Look for a program that has been accredited by ACOTE. Find a complete list of programs on the American Occupational Therapy Association site.
  • Licensing: You will need a professional license to practice as an occupational therapist anywhere in the United States. The requirements will vary from state to state, and a training program will be able to help you ascertain what steps you need to take in your state.
  • Board exam: To obtain a license you will need to pass a national certification examination administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.

Occupational Therapist Skills & Competencies

Certain soft skills are necessary for success in this field:

Communication skills: Occupational therapists must be able to effectively relay instructions to patients and communicate verbally and in writing with all stakeholders in a patient's care. They must also be able to listen to patients to help meet their needs.

Compassion and patience: This is critical for providers in this role. Many patients may be frustrated and resentful about their situation whether they or dealing with a new condition or one they have had for a long time. Others may have unrealistic expectations about the outcome of their therapy, and it's important for an occupational therapist to help patients set realistic and achievable goals, without discouraging them. 

Critical thinking skills: Occupational therapists have a variety of treatment methods from which to choose. Critical thinking and analytical skills can help them make educated decisions about what might be best for a patient.

Job Outlook

The employment outlook for occupational therapists is much better than most occupations, including others in the health diagnosing and treatment field. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in this profession will grow 24% from 2016 through 2026—much higher than the 7-percent growth projected for all jobs during the same period. This excellent projection can be attributed to the baby boomer generation that wants to stay active as they age, as well as patients seeking non-invasive treatments for conditions and illnesses.

The BLS adds that occupational therapists with additional certifications or specialized knowledge in specific treatment areas will likely have better job prospects.

Work Environment

Occupational therapists may frequently travel between healthcare facilities. There is some office work involved but in general, they'll spend a lot of time standing with patients. The job may also entail lifting patients and heavy equipment. 

Work Schedule

Most occupational therapists work full time, but it's possible to work part time. The hours can vary greatly. They may work nights or weekends, as needed, to accommodate patients’ schedules.

How to Get the Job

Write a Standout Resume and Cover Letter

Review examples of occupational therapist resumes and cover letters to make sure you include everything you need.


Start by looking at job sites that are especially for occupational therapists, such as JobsOT.com or OTJobLink.

Prepare for Interviews

To build confidence and better prepare for interviews, take a look at some common interview questions for occupational therapists.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in occupational therapy may also want to explore these other careers, listed below with their median salary:

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017