Modern occupational therapy is involved with helping people participate in daily life in the real world. Indeed, occupational therapy has always been about “doing” – see here for a brief history of occupational therapy – but it has been difficult, in a strongly reductionist and biomedical context, to articulate the unique and particular contribution occupational therapy makes within healthcare.
In a conversation last week with Dr Mary Butler from Otago Polytechnic, we were discussing our areas of research. I mentioned that knowledge translation, or helping clinicians use research that is often locked up in peer-reviewed journals, is my passion. Something clicked and we both recognised that the process of translating from one “artificial” setting to the real world is where both of us feel completely at home. As our conversation rambled (we know how to talk!), we described the way we go about contributing to research and clinical practice: looking from the evidence-based material or research in daily life, to where this knowledge needs to be applied. Our passion is understanding the where/how/why/what that gets in the way of bringing evidence to the lived experience, whether that be researching how an older person with poor vision might avoid falls (change the lightbulbs for brighter ones – it can help!), or working out a clinical reasoning model to help therapists think broadly about pain and factors influencing disability.
Knowledge translation is an area of research and practice that bridges the gap between journal articles and implementation. It involves identifying needs in the real world (read: practice area), identifying or developing research to solve those problems, making the solutions (research) accessible, then adopting and modifying that information as it’s implemented so that it does what it needs to do.
For occupational therapists, this is work as usual. We work with the person to identify their needs: what does this person want and need to do in daily life? We then scour our knowledge bases, often assessing the person’s capabilities, understanding the context and environment, research the constraints on the person’s participation and establish the obstacles that prevent this person from participating in what they want and need to do. We then tailor the solutions to fit the unique demands of the person, the task (or occupation) and the contexts, and help the person implement the solution so they can participate.
And this is why it’s so difficult to answer that seemingly simple question: What can you offer people? Why should I refer to you? What do you do? Because my answer will almost always be “it depends …!”
Working in pain management as I do, I draw on pain research across basic science, biology, biomechanics, physiology, sociology, anthropology, psychology in many different fields. I also need to know about pharmacology, kinesiology, strength and fitness research, and yes I even have to read about surgery, physiotherapy, nursing, post-operative recovery. Because the people I work with have relationships with others, I need to understand relationship dynamics, employer/employee relations, collegial relations at work, friendships, mateships and both introversion and extraversion. I could go on – but the point is not just how many fields I need to be conversant with, it’s that the way I use this knowledge is unique to occupational therapy. Let me elaborate.
All those fields of knowledge are relevant to my work, but the area that is utterly unique to occupational therapy is understanding the interaction between this person and his/her many different participation contexts. This means that I might be working on graded exposure to the fear of bending forward. A physiotherapist may have been working on this in a gym or fitness context – but this environment is controlled, there is a therapist hovering near, the loads and positions and floor surface and lighting and number of people around and noise level is all controlled and fairly consistent. As an occupational therapist, my job is to help this person generalise the fear reduction experienced in the gym to every day life. That means loading things into the boot of the car, or over the back seat of the car, or the laundry basket, or picking up the clothes off the floordrobe in the teens bedroom, or picking up the dog pooh from the back yard, or bending to weed the garden, or bending to put the shoes and socks on, or clean the bottom of the bath or shower. I have to help the person identify where they need to bend over, and grade the demands to a level that the person can only just manage – so he or she can push towards increasing confidence in any situation.
Translating from one context to another doesn’t always happen by itself. I’m sure there are many times we’ve seen someone walking beautifully, using the painful foot with a completely correct heel-toe pattern in the clinic – then perhaps unexpectedly meeting the person in the shopping mall on a wet day when the floor is slippery only to find he or she is leaning on the shopping trolley, limping and hardly putting any weight on the foot at all.
Knowing about a strategy doesn’t mean it’s used in the real context in which it’s needed. A mindfulness meditation carried out in clinic, where it’s quiet and there are no distractions, and no children saying “what’s for dinner!” and no partner coming home after a busy day wanting to decompress by talking… is a very different experience carried out at home! And this complexity is the practice space for occupational therapists. It looks like “doing meditation” and “oh but we’ve done that in one session” – but it’s a complex balancing of priorities, establishing boundaries, caring sufficiently for oneself over others, being willing to bring the mind back repeatedly as salient thoughts and sounds intrude.
I think that many clinicians assume that what is done in treatment has carryover into daily life. I would argue that this gap between knowing and doing, discussed so much in knowledge translation about research and clinical practice, is precisely what is missing in much of our pain rehabilitation. We may not even recognise that the person hasn’t integrated the skills we’ve been focusing on: why? Because we don’t enter the person’s everyday life.
Some of the things occupational therapists focus on so much include meaning and values, the social context, the physical environment, the cognitive and sensory environment – and at times, we can forget that we draw on foundation science in our treatment approach, so we hand out long-handled reachers for picking the clothes up from the floordrobe, forgetting that it’s possible for people to learn how to bend over without fear… and that’s a conversation for occupational therapists to have. I hope that by starting to recognise our “knowledge translation” space, we might gain more confidence to read research well outside “occupational” areas, and begin to consider how we can apply what other disciplines study to the everyday lives of the people we help.