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An Overview of OT Specialties: Which One Is Right for You?

MedTravelers OT specialties guide can help you decide what's right for you


Which OT Speciality Is Right for You?

By Anita Wong, contributor

As an occupational therapist, you can choose from diverse career paths, depending on your passions. You could work with aging populations in a nursing facility, help traumatic brain injury patients in recovery or assist children with learning or behavioral difficulties at school. Read on to learn about different OT specialties and find one that matches your interests.

Why should OTs specialize?

Occupational therapists treat patients with physical, mental or emotional challenges, helping them to participate fully in daily life. This expanding field is expected to grow by 18% by 2028. OTs with specialized skills may have the best job prospects, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

If there's a treatment area that captures your interest, you can build your expertise and eventually apply for certification through the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). This demonstrates your advanced knowledge, helps you stand out when applying for new positions and boosts your earning potential.

Gerontology specialty

By 2030, 20% of Americans will be over the age of 65 and outnumber children for the first time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This is creating a demand for occupational therapists to work with older patients who are more vulnerable to chronic disease, injuries and conditions such as dementia.

Treatments may aim to increase mobility, strengthen memory or cognitive skills and promote independence. OTs may also recommend modifications to a patient's home to make it easier for them to function and remain independent.

Clinicians need patience, compassion and excellent communication skills to support geriatric patients. OTs specializing in this field can earn a BCG certification.

Mental health specialty

One in five American adults live with mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. This includes mild to severe post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and personality disorders.

OTs specializing in mental health help patients manage their illness, cope with stress, improve self-awareness, develop interpersonal skills, set goals, manage time and be safe at home and in the community.

A calm outlook, empathy, excellent observational skills and knowing how to de-escalate difficult situations is essential for those working with mental health patients. Occupational therapists in this field can work toward a BCMH certification.

OTs can specialize in pediatrics

Pediatric specialty

Occupational therapists who work in pediatrics treat young patients with autism, developmental delays, physical impairment, sensory processing issues and other challenges. They might help a child in a wheelchair to play with peers or a teen with a developmental disability to hold a job.

Pediatric OTs work in homes, communities and school settings and help children:

  • Reach developmental milestones
  • Develop fine and gross motor skills
  • Engage in physical activities such as walking or throwing a ball
  • Learn to use an assistive device
  • Reduce unwanted behaviors
  • Socialize and play

OTs specializing in pediatrics enjoy children, have a sense of play and can build rapport and trust with young patients. They can work toward a BCP certification.

Physical rehabilitation specialty

One of the OT specialties that's most in demand is physical rehabilitation, which treats people recovering from amputations, fractures, arthritis, traumatic brain injury, cancer, spinal cord injury or stroke. Patients may need to regain or develop new skills to perform daily activities, learn to use assistive devices or adapt home and work environments.

OTs in this field should have strong musculoskeletal knowledge. Coursework in mental health is helpful to identify emotional factors that might affect a patient's progress. Specialists in physical rehabilitation can earn a BCPR certification.

The difference between board and specialty certification

There are nine OT specialties certified by the AOTA. As of 2020, candidates must successfully write an exam to earn the credential.

Board certification for Gerontology (BCG), Mental Health (BCMH), Pediatrics (BCP) or Physical Rehabilitation (BCPR) requires:

  • 5 years of experience as an OT
  • 5,000 hours working in the specialty area
  • 500 hours delivering occupational therapy services in the specialty area

Specialty certifications require less experience than board certification. These credentials can can be earned in:

  • Feeding, Eating and Swallowing (SCFES or SCFES-A)
  • School Systems (SCSS or SCSS-A)
  • Environmental Modification (SCEM or SCEM-A)
  • Low Vision (SCLV or SCLV-A)
  • Driving and Community Mobility (SCDCM or SCDCM-A)

Being an OT can be an incredibly rewarding career because you get to help people improve their quality of life. Consider building your clinical experience by working as a travel health professional. Search the Med Travelers job board for occupational therapist jobs across the country and start earning hours toward your OT specialty today.


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