If you were to ask 10 different people to define the role of an Occupational Therapist (OT), chances are, you’d get 10 different answers. It is a vital role in the medical field that covers a broad range of responsibilities. In honor of Occupational Therapy Month, we sat down with Andrea Sullivan, OT/L, supervisor of Burke’s outpatient occupational therapy department, in an effort to learn more about this important — and sometimes misunderstood — profession.
How do you define what an OT does?
I define an OT as someone who helps a patient recover the abilities they need in order to do what occupies their time. It means working with a patient on restoring and developing their core needs like rehabilitating hand or arm function. These skills help people return to work, driving, school, leisure or basic self-care activities; basically all the “jobs” someone does in a day. It can also mean giving a patient the tools to participate in social situations. It really is the use of therapy to get them back to the activities that feel valuable to them.
How does a patient redevelop these abilities?
It’s a two-pronged approach to caring for patients as an OT. We have restorative care, which aims to restore strength and coordination through the use of various tools or exercises. We also have the adaptive approach. This is when a patient isn’t able to perform a task the way they did before. Our job is to make sure they can still complete that task, but in a different way. The whole premise is to help the patient function more independently.
We try to balance the two approaches. Restoring strength and coordination can take time. We may want to make sure a patient can have his or her arm move in a certain way, but we may need to develop an adaptive solution as well while that strength and dexterity is restored. OT is a profession where finding solutions is always “out of the box;” we never work right out of a book.
What are some developments in the field you find exciting?
We’re seeing a lot of advances in neurorehabilitation that are conclusively proving that the brain can recover over time. The general feeling used to be: “If you don’t get better within a few months, that’s it,” but now we know that isn’t the case. Because of this, we’re receiving a greater level of recognition.
The speed with which technology has pushed the field forward is exciting, too. Robotics and computers geared toward recovery in the brain have changed so much even since I started. I can’t even imagine where it will be in 10 years.
What are some of the challenges you face?
One of the big ones is just working on shorter timetables. We’re seeing shorter hospital stays and this means OTs need to accomplish in weeks what used to be done over months. We’ve had to take a look at everything: from how we evaluate to figuring out what needs to be done with a therapist versus what can be done with a caregiver at home. We used to call in the family toward the end of a patient’s stay, but now we bring them onboard day one. It’s critical we keep them in the loop and help them stay in the right mindset to prepare them to best care for their loved one.
What’s one thing you love about being an OT?
You’re constantly challenged to be creative as an OT. You can—and probably will—work in so many different settings. There’s a diversity. If you work with older adults, you have the ability to switch and work with kids in an early intervention setting. You have the ability to reinvent yourself within the profession.
I love being an OT for Burke because they remain so committed to providing the best patient care and have never wavered from that. Burke continues to offer one-to-one care where other hospitals may not. Burke encourages us to continue our education and learn from each other through on site in-servicing so we can constantly bring new techniques and interventions back to patient care. When one OT attends a training they are able to bring what they learned back and make us all better. That’s huge.