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Job Description of an Acute Care Occupational Therapist

by Fred Decker, studioD

Every day, doctors and emergency medical technicians save the lives of many people who have experienced accidents, violence or a severe illness. For many patients, that's the beginning of a long and painful struggle to restore their quality of life. Occupational therapists often play a role in that rehabilitation process, helping patients recover their ability to care for themselves and resume normal life. Some work in long-term rehabilitation, while others focus more on acute care.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapists focus on helping their patients perform routine, day-to-day tasks such as personal hygiene, cooking and computer use. Therapists begin by assessing the patient's condition, then construct a plan of therapy that will help restore the patient's mobility, dexterity and quality of life. Therapists must have a strong grasp of anatomy and physiology, an understanding of cognitive and neurological conditions, and a creative approach to meeting the patient's therapeutic needs. Acute care occupational therapists treat patients who are recently debilitated by injury and illness and need help adjusting to their new condition.

Acute Care

Acute care occupational therapists often work in a clinical setting, where patients are in recovery from an illness, surgery or trauma care. Each patient has unique needs. A fit young athlete who has lost a foot in a car accident will need to learn how to live with a prosthesis, while an elderly patient recovering from a stroke must regain basic skills such as speech and walking. Therapists in acute care must be especially capable of motivating and coaching their patients, who often struggle emotionally with the loss of independence resulting from their illness or injury.

The Process

After performing an initial assessment of the patient's condition, the acute care therapist will construct a plan of treatment. Through exercises and the repetition of routine activities, the therapist helps patients build strength and develop coping mechanisms to work around their limitations. This might include the use of adaptive tools, such as soft foam grips for a fork or a toothbrush, as well as splints or crutches. The goal is usually to help patients adjust well enough that they can be discharged. After discharge, patients will receive longer-term care from another occupational therapist for as long as necessary.


A bachelor's degree is required for entry into most occupational therapy programs. Prerequisites vary by school, but usually require a strong concentration in the biological and behavioral sciences. Most occupational therapists enter the field with a master's degree, though doctorates are not uncommon. At graduation, newly trained therapists may choose to take a certification exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. Every state requires therapists to be licensed or registered, and requirements vary by state. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 33 percent employment growth for occupational therapists by 2020, much higher than the 14 percent average for all occupations.

About the Author

Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.

Photo Credits

  • Sara D. Davis/Getty Images News/Getty Images