I’ve struggled with professional identity from time to time, but after completing my PhD thesis looking at how people live well with pain, I’ve developed a new understanding of how occupational therapists add value in this area of practice.
Occupational therapists joke that “no-one knows what an occupational therapist does” – and sadly, that’s true. It’s not because what we do isn’t important, it’s because our view of people and the way we work with people differs from most health professions. Occupational therapists don’t treat disease per se, we work with people’s function and participation, with a person’s illness experience. We don’t fit inside a biomedical, disease-oriented model of humans.
This means an occupational therapist works with people using a process-oriented approach. This approach begins by understanding what a person values, what matters in their life, and how the person’s life context influences their participation. Occupational therapists are concerned with the daily minutiae of life: the way you clean your teeth, how you get to work, what you do for fun, the roles you undertake, the daily routine you follow, the things that make your life your own – not a facsimile of someone else’s.
In pain management/rehabilitation, occupational therapists are there to help people resume, or begin, a life that looks like their own. To integrate strategies into daily routines and habits. To contextualise the strategies other professionals introduce. We’re the professional who talks about the timing of exercise/movement practice – how to fit exercises into each day without compromising other important routines. The details of when and where and how exercises are done in the long term, for life, in life. We encourage people to look beyond the simple 3 x 10 and into the kinds of movement opportunities that hold meaning beyond the “it will help your pain”.
Occupational therapists translate what happens in clinic settings into the real, messy, chaotic and unpredictable worlds of the people we serve. When someone is learning to develop self compassion, occupational therapists work out what this might look like in the context of being a good father, or an efficient employee. When someone is developing effective communication skills, occupational therapists are there to review when, where and how these skills are brought into play with the kids, the uncle, the neighbour, the colleague. When someone needs to learn to down-regulate a sensitive nervous system, occupational therapists are there to help assess each setting, noticing the sensory load of a situation, problem-solving ways to remain engaged in what’s important without withdrawing or overloading.
When someone’s afraid of a movement, occupational therapists go into the real world to help that person begin to do that activity – our skills are there to titrate the level of difficulty not just around biomechanical demands, but also social, interpersonal, sensory, and cognitive loads. Ever wondered why a person can manage something really well in the clinic – but can’t do the groceries, go to a restaurant, stay with friends overnight, anywhere where the demands are different? Occupational therapists can help figure out why.
For those that don’t know, my profession has been established since the days of 1793, when Phillipe Pinel began what was then called “moral treatment and occupation”, as an approach to treating people with mental illness. In the US, a National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy (NSPOT) was founded in 1917, and continued through the 1920’s and 1930’s until the Great Depression. Occupational therapy became more closely aligned with medicine as part of a rehabilitation approach to recovery with wounded soldiers, those with TB (in New Zealand especially), and those with chronic diseases. In fact, occupational therapy was a registered and protected health profession in NZ since 1945 (before psychology).
It was during the 1980’s and 1990’s that the profession began questioning the medical model – and during my training in the early 1980’s, Engel’s biopsychosocial model was promoted as an over-arching approach to viewing people. So for occupational therapists, this is our practice philosophy: to look at the whole person in context.
Occupational therapists are fully trained across both physical and mental health. Our profession is one of the very few that has retained this “whole person” model of health from its inception. The value of doing, being and becoming is at the centre of practice. The appreciation that people live in a physical and social context, and that people have biopsychosocial, cultural and spiritual aspects is central to practice.
Pain is a human experience that spans the biological, the psychological, the social, the spiritual. Pain can influence all of life. When life has lost meaning because it doesn’t look like the life a person had before pain – this is where occupational therapists practice the art and science of our work.