To independence, and beyond!

Published 12:37 pm Tuesday, April 12, 2022

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People often ask me about the difference between a Physical Therapist (PT) and an Occupational Therapist (OT). While you’ll often see the two professions working in the same environment, the disciplines and training are quite different. Because April is National Occupational Therapist Awareness Month, this article will center on the work of the OT. 


Scott McDermott, MPA, OTR/L, is the Director of the St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Center and is an occupational therapist. He says, “an occupational therapist is not a job counselor but a healthcare practitioner who helps people recover from temporary disabilities to give their lives meaning and restore purpose.” A typical patient will have suffered from a stroke, traumatic injuries, amputations, bone fractures, neurological disorders, carpal tunnel syndrome, etc. 

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OTs may work in a variety of ways to help their patients. Scott told me that “they may teach a stroke survivor how to dress with one hand independently in some cases.” OTs are experts in fabricating upper extremity orthotics or splints to support and stabilize an injured body part.


According to Scott, his work with patients begins with evaluating performance and process skills. “This evaluation becomes a benchmark from which we develop a therapy plan and measure improvement,” said Scott. 


Performance Skills are observable interactions and movements of the person with implicit functional purpose around objects and environments. We base performance skill evaluations on daily living activities and an assessment of fine motor skills (the hands’ precision, dexterity, and coordination).


Scott told me that “we look at the patient’s ability to align, stabilize, position, reach, grip, manipulate, open and close things, and lift objects easily.”


Process skills refer to the skilled use of body functions and structures to carry out a task. Examples of process skills include sequencing steps, staying on task, asking questions, and modifying performance when encountering problems.


“As you can imagine, many of our patients were accomplished in their professions and lived independently,” said Scott. However, a change in health can cause a sudden and dramatic alteration from high performance and independence to a significant loss of the most fundamental skills and complete dependence. As a result, patients can become depressed, frustrated, and angry. 


Because of the challenges facing your patients, Occupational Therapy is not a profession to enter without considerable thought and consideration. To be a successful OT, you will need:


  • Patience.Some of your patients will be rude, depressed, frustrated, stubborn, impatient, or in considerable pain. Nevertheless, we treat all patients with the same degree of respect. OTs use what we call “therapeutic use of self” to help motivate and effectively treat our patients.”


  • Determination.OTs need to be able to assess their patients, look far ahead, and use their clinical judgment to “persevere” and attain those goals.


  • Enthusiasm.Enthusiasm and optimism will rub off on even the most challenging patient. Maintaining a positive outlook will serve you well for the long haul of your career. OTs need to be motivators.


  • Empathy.I’ve read that empathy is “seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another.” The ability to endear yourself to your patients’ situations will help you quickly establish relationships, earning their trust and confidence.


Scott shared that “Like any profession, Occupational Therapy can have its challenges. And just like any profession, it’s what you make of it. OT is a very stable and rewarding career with a great deal of demand.” People will always get sick, have accidents, and have surgeries. The profession is a growing and diverse healthcare field serving people of all ages suffering from illnesses, injuries, and disabilities.


If you have a healthcare topic of interest or a question, send me a note at Also, please follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or visit to learn about top-rated St. Luke’s Hospital and our new world-class services.