Demand for Occupational Therapists Rises as their Roles Expand

demand for occupational therapists risesThe demand for occupational therapists is rising, with job growth expected to increase 27% from 2014 through 2024, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. The aging population is definitely driving those numbers, but it's not the only cause.

More than half of occupational therapists work in hospitals and occupational therapy offices, where they provide rehabilitation services to the elderly suffering from stroke, arthritis, Alzheimer's and other long-term disabilities, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"We've seen an increased need for occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants pretty consistently over the past 10 years," said Amy Lamb, president of the American Occupational Therapy Association and an associate professor of occupational therapy at Eastern Michigan University.

One reason demand is up in hospitals is that these facilities recognize that occupational therapy has a role in lowering readmission rates, she said. A 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that occupational therapy was the only spending category that had a statistically significant impact on hospital readmissions for heart failure, pneumonia and acute myocardial infarction.

"When we're working with individuals, even in traditional systems like in a hospital, we're always thinking about discharge," Lamb said. "And, their support through therapy can have a big impact on successful outcomes."

Aging in Place

However, occupational therapists – and occupational therapy assistants -- are also filling a niche for the elderly that's not just focused on rehab.

As people age, they want to stay in their homes and in their natural environment. Occupational therapists can help them do that by making modifications to the home to reduce falls and adjust their daily routines to ensure safety. "That's where occupational therapy shines the most," Lamb said.

Policy Impacts

Policy, of course, has had a direct impact on the uptick in occupational therapists. Lamb pointed out that rehabilitative services are one of the 10 essential health benefits covered by the Affordable Care Act.

However, while occupational therapists may have benefited from the ACA, "they ultimately help meet the needs of Americans better and in more cost-effective ways," she said. "It's cost effective for us to work on prevention and wellness and keep people healthy, instead of waiting until they get into an acute medical situation, where healthcare costs can spiral upward."

Healthcare policies also have introduced more occupational therapists into school settings. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), passed by Congress in 2004, mandates that disabled children ages 3 to 21 receive special education services and related services.

Providing those services are occupational therapists, along with physical therapists and speech pathologists, who help kids with autism, health impairments, and physical, emotional, learning or intellectual disabilities.

Not Just Rehab

Practitioners don't just offer rehabilitation services; they support children's academic achievements overall and promote positive behaviors in class.

Teachers have learned about this broader capability and are tapping into it. Occupational therapists are reporting that their roles have expanded to help children experiencing challenges with executive functioning, time management and organizational skills.

"Teachers are seeing that our skill set goes much deeper than some of the more traditional roles they might expect from us," Lamb said. That includes designing classrooms to promote learning for all children, not just those with disabilities. For example, many children these days are stimulated by technology and find it hard to sit still. Placing them at standing desks at the back of the room helps some children pay attention in class.

"Most people perceive occupational therapy to be specifically a rehabilitation profession," Lamb said. By doing so, they may be missing a potential market of how they can use their practitioners. "Really, we're a health and wellness profession."