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Good question.

"Occupational therapy is the therapeutic use of self-care, work, and play activities to increase independent function, enhance development, and prevent disability; may include adaptation of task or environment to achieve maximum independence and to enhance quality of life."

Dictionary definition of occupational therapy, adopted and approved by the
Representative Assembly in April 1986
Taken From: AOTA
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That's great, but what the heck does it mean?

Glad you asked. OTs treat a person's functionality. Let me put this another way. Maybe a person comes into a hospital because he has weakness in his arm. Maybe he's just had a stroke or been in some kind of accident. His doctor would look at his illness and treat that. A physical therapist may test his muscle strength and treat that. A nurse may perform certain tasks for him while he is unable to do them for himself. An occupational therapist would make an assessment of this person's ability to do the things he needs to do every day, like dress, brush his teeth, get up and out to work, etc. and treat a person in those areas. While the PT may ask the question, 'how strong is this man's grip today?' an OT would ask the question 'is this man's grip strong enough to allow him to get a glass of water to his mouth without dropping it?' See the difference? The nurse may help this man to get from his wheelchair to the toilet but an OT may teach him how to get from his wheelchair to the toilet by himself or with the aid of some assistive device.

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Wait just a minute. What about people in a psych hospital?
Aren't they having trouble functioning too?

Yep! That's why we have OTs working in psychosocial settings too. It's also why most all OTs in the U.S. have a psych affiliation as part of their education. Psych is a little different from physical disability. Let's say that you have someone who is very paranoid and thinks that everyone is out to hurt him. Naturally he's going to have trouble interacting with people. (makes sense right?) Here's where it gets tricky. Unlike a psychologist an OT doesn't do talk psychotherapy. The OT doesn't care that their patient wet the bed until the age of 25 unless it has some impact on their level of function. So what do we do? We may place this person into a craft group where they would have to interact with other people in order to prepare this person with the same skills he may need to get along in the outside world. For example, a therapist may intentionally make only one hammer available so that this patient must ask someone else for it if he wants to complete his project. This gets them used to interacting with people even if those feelings of anxiety are still present. This is just one example but it's a fairly common one.

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Doctors, nurses, PTs, OTs, and any of the dozens of other health professions all look at a patient with the same basic goals in mind. To make the patient healthier than they were before they walked into their office or to prevent a patient from becoming unhealthy. We do, however, all have our unique perspectives on how to get that job done and, yes, there is some overlap.

OT's treat function in self care, work, play and leisure.

That's what we do!
And we're proud to do it.

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