Q&A with occupational therapist Sue Baptiste

We caught up with highly respected occupational therapist and professor in McMaster University’s School of Rehabilitation Sciences, Sue Baptiste, to get the inside scoop on her chosen calling. An often misunderstood profession, occupational therapy brings a unique and valuable perspective to the healthcare team. Check out our interview with Sue below for all the deets.

So what exactly does an occupational therapist do?

Our role is to help you make the most of your life every day. Our clients are very diverse—they may be people who’ve had an accident, an illness, are elderly, live with a disability or face some kind of important life transition. Our work settings are equally varied—we work in hospitals, community clinics, private practice, schools, correctional institutions, long-term care homes, with the military, with the homeless—basically in any environment. OTs help their clients make changes to their homes, workplaces, thought patterns and the way they complete their daily activities so that they can accomplish the things that are most important to them. We keep the focus on ‘the doing.’ No one else on the healthcare team does that.

Can you give us an example?

Sure. Let’s say a 65-year-old woman was seriously injured in a car accident. She’s home from the hospital and having trouble doing some of the things she used to do. Her occupational therapist will help her identify her most important goal—let’s say it’s playing at the park with her grandson—and will help her take the small steps needed to get there. If she’s feeling anxious about leaving the house, for example, the OT may work with her to venture onto her front step to bring in the mail. Little by little they’ll build on small successes so that eventually she’ll be pushing her grandson on a swing.

The term “occupation” in “occupational therapist” seems a little confusing.

It really is. We think of “occupation” as going to work—which is why many people think that occupational therapists only deal with employment issues—but occupation is actually much broader than that. Yes, sometimes “occupation” is about doing a job for pay. But other times the “occupation” OTs are talking about is going to school, doing the grocery shopping, vacuuming the house, playing hockey or walking the dog.

What’s the difference between occupational therapy and physiotherapy?

Physiotherapy is focused on maximizing the movement you have in order to be as active and engaged as possible in your life. Physiotherapists are much more hands-on than OTs, using tools like muscle testing, exercise, manipulation and massage to help their clients. OTs can do all those things to a small degree but when you get down to it, we’re very different. Helping someone walk, for example, is a physio’s specialty. But it becomes an occupational therapist’s specialty if the client is a competitive walker and she wants to get back into that sport, because we’ll be working on much more than just the mechanics of walking.

Can an occupational therapist help someone with chronic pain?

Absolutely. Chronic pain was actually my clinical specialty before I became a full-time academic. Occupational therapists can help chronic pain clients deal with their anger, help them become aware of unhelpful thought patterns, educate them about ways to manage their lives and help them stand up for themselves in a socially acceptable way—because you have to be able to advocate effectively for yourself with your physician, lawyer and insurance company.

What’s your top tip for someone who’s been injured in an accident?

My first recommendation is to find a way to relax. That may sound strange, but by relaxing you’re reducing your muscle tension, which in turn will reduce your pain level. Having said that, you have to feel secure before you can relax, so you need supportive people around you, be it your lawyer, your family and friends or your therapist. I really do suggest you get an occupational therapist to work with you to reclaim some control over your life and decision-making, which is so important to recovery.

How can someone find an occupational therapist?

Because you don’t have to have a diagnosis or physician referral to work with an OT, you may be on your own to find one to help you. If you don’t know an OT already, a first step might be to look in the Yellow Pages or online. If your local university has an OT program, you could contact them for recommendations. Another great resource is the College of Occupational Therapists of Ontario’s website; click on “OT Directory” for a database of all the registered OTs in the province, searchable by geographic area, language spoken, area of practice and more. Then there’s the tried-and-true approach of asking friends, family members, co-workers and others in your social circle for their recommendations.

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