Some therapy appointments are easy to visualize as teletherapy. Consider mental health, for example. All you need is a video camera and an internet connection—talk therapy can happen anywhere.
But other types of appointments, such as occupational therapy (OT), might be more challenging. However, the pandemic made virtual occupational therapy a reality and today’s occupational therapy students need to be ready to offer this type of treatment online.
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) recognizes that medical practices are experiencing a liberation from traditional office spaces, and we pride ourselves on ensuring our students are prepared for telehealth options. Our students have opportunities to practice telehealth with pediatric and adult patients. Our guide to virtual occupational therapy gives you the information you need to determine if this is the right career for you.
Occupational Therapy Telehealth
Teletherapy is any medical therapy conducted over the phone or Internet. It consists of phone or video calls, texts or emails. Virtual occupational therapy, however, is best done via video calls since the therapist and patient need to see each other. In some cases, medical professionals use teletherapy exclusively to deliver occupational therapy. In others, they use it in conjunction with in-person sessions.
Teletherapy has revolutionized healthcare since the pandemic made it necessary in 2020. Even as the pandemic eased, telehealth has remained a popular choice for patients:
- 37% of adults participated in some form of telemedicine in 2021.1
- Experts predict the global telehealth market will increase to over $893 billion (USD) by 2032.2
- Currently, 85% of medical professionals offer a telehealth option.3
All OT students must be familiar with telehealth resources to be competitive in the current job market and best support their future patients.4
Benefits of Virtual Occupational Therapy
Virtual occupational therapy benefits both the therapist and the patient.
Practitioner benefits include:
- Location flexibility: Unless they are required to do some in-person appointments, most virtual occupational therapists don’t have to live where they work. They can also travel worldwide as long as they have a strong internet connection.
- Salary flexibility: Because pay varies by each state’s cost of living, virtual occupational therapists can choose to work where they can earn more. They may also be able to take on more clients than an in-person therapist since they can work outside regular business hours.
- More practice options: Virtual occupational therapists are not limited to one practice. They can work as freelancers, opting to support several different practices and expand their client reach. They can also choose to work only virtually or to offer both virtual and in-person appointments.
- Reduced or no commute: Virtual occupational therapists can eliminate their commute if they conduct sessions at home. They can use this time to see additional clients or to take care of paperwork.
Clients also benefit from virtual occupational therapy in the following ways:
- Increased access to care: Many underserved populations, such as people with disabilities, low socioeconomic status or transportation barriers, can access high-quality therapy services no matter where they live with virtual occupational therapy.
- Increased appointment flexibility: Since virtual occupational therapists can set their own hours, patients benefit from more flexible appointment times. They also don’t have to factor in transportation time, making it easier to fit appointments into their busy schedules.
- Increased privacy: Virtual occupational therapy allows patients to complete therapy sessions at home. They may be more comfortable and focused in their own space, leading to more potential therapy gains.
- Lower costs: Virtual occupational therapy can be more affordable because it eliminates related expenses such as transportation, childcare and missed work.
What Does a Virtual Occupational Therapist Do?
A virtual occupational therapist does everything an in-person occupational therapist does to improve motor skills:
- Evaluate patients
- Create a treatment plan
- Coach the patient through different therapies to restore function to the affected area
However, how they do it is slightly different. Instead of working with a patient in an office, the therapist and the patient are on video conference software so they can see and speak to one another. The therapist may work from their office or home, depending on whether their job is entirely virtual or a blend of in-person and virtual appointments.
Virtual occupational therapists need to do a few things that traditional occupational therapists don’t:
- Craft a plan to deliver resources and supplies to patients prior to appointments (for example, deliver tools, such as crayons or a tennis ball, that they will use during the session).
- Test technology equipment, such as headphones and microphones, before each appointment.
- Troubleshoot the connection during the session.
Necessary Skills for Virtual Occupational Therapists
All occupational therapists need the same set of skills in:
- Problem solving
- Strong communication
However, virtual occupational therapists need additional skills:
- Key decision-making skills: Virtual occupational therapy has many benefits, but it isn’t appropriate for every patient. A virtual occupational therapist must recognize when virtual therapies are most effective and explain those benefits to a patient.
- Technology expertise: A virtual occupational therapist needs to understand the different technology platforms to use to meet with clients, when to use them and how to troubleshoot technical challenges. They also need to communicate how the technology works to someone in a different space who may not be as comfortable with the tools as they are.
- Clear coaching skills: When a patient performs a movement, an in-person therapist can guide them by touch, adjusting their grip or stance. In a virtual session, the therapist can only use verbal cues to adjust patient movements, which can require specific direction.
- Strong webside manner: Interacting with a person online differs from in-person interactions. A strong webside manner includes the following tactics:
- Make connections and get the patient’s attention, especially when working with children as a pediatric occupational therapist
- Look at the camera instead of the screen to make eye contact
- Introduce and explain the technology you’re using
- Be empathetic to the patient’s feelings and express your support verbally– more often than in an in-person visit
- Select a quiet, private space to conduct the session
- Monitor body language and keep your body in the video frame
- Introduce and greet everyone in the session, such as parents and caregivers
- Thank the patient for inviting you into their home
- Maintain patient privacy
- Dress and act professionally
- Emergency response know-how: If your patient should injure themselves, you won’t be able to help like you would during an in-person visit. It’s a good idea to find out the patient’s location (including their exact address) and their local emergency numbers at the start of the visit in case you need to call 911.
- Environmental awareness: Assess the patient’s physical space to ensure it is a safe area. You may need to modify directions on the fly to accommodate space and resource restrictions.
Who Hires Virtual Occupational Therapists?
Anyone who hires an occupational therapist may seek someone to do the job virtually:
- Rehab centers
- Public and private elementary and secondary schools
- Home healthcare providers
- Nursing homes
These facilities may be predominantly in-person, but would like to offer patients more treatment options. Schools or rehab centers may already be fully virtual.
How To Become a Virtual Occupational Therapist
To become an occupational therapist, whether in-person or virtual, you need to do the following:
- Earn an undergraduate degree in a related field.
- Earn a graduate degree (master’s or doctoral) in occupational therapy.
- Pass the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam to practice in your state.5
When choosing an occupational therapy school, keep the program’s requirements in mind.
If you wish to practice virtually in multiple states, you may need to take additional steps to become licensed to work in those states. Do your research by contacting each state’s occupational therapy board as soon as possible.6 Getting certified can take time, and you don’t want to lose out on a virtual position because you aren’t licensed to practice in that location.
Start Your Journey to Virtual Occupational Therapy With USAHS
If you’re ready to take the next step toward your future as an occupational therapist with USAHS, apply today. We offer multiple start dates, and our student success culture starts with a learning path that fits your lifestyle.
The entry-level occupational therapy master’s degree (MOT) programs on the San Marcos, California; St. Augustine and Miami, Florida; and Austin, Texas, campuses and the entry-level occupational therapy doctoral degree (OTD) programs on the San Marcos, California; St. Augustine and Miami, Florida; Austin and Dallas, Texas, campuses are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) located at 6116 Executive Boulevard, Suite 200, North Bethesda, MD 20852-4929. ACOTE’s telephone number c/o AOTA is 301-652-AOTA, and its web address is www.acoteonline.org. Graduates of the programs will be eligible to sit for the national certification examination for the occupational therapist administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). After successful completion of this exam, the individual will be an Occupational Therapist, Registered (OTR). In addition, all states require licensure in order to practice; however, state licenses are usually based on the results of the NBCOT Certification Examination. Note that a felony conviction may affect a graduate’s ability to sit for the NBCOT certification examination or attain state licensure.
The entry-level occupational therapy master’s degree program at the Dallas, Texas, campus has applied for accreditation and has been granted Candidacy Status by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), located at 6116 Executive Boulevard, Suite 200, North Bethesda, MD 20852-4929. ACOTE’s telephone number c/o AOTA is (301) 652-AOTA and its web address is www.acoteonline.org. The program must have a preaccreditation review, complete an on-site evaluation and be granted Accreditation Status before its graduates will be eligible to sit for the national certification examination for the occupational therapist administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT). After successful completion of this exam, the individual will be an Occupational Therapist, Registered (OTR). In addition, all states require licensure in order to practice; however, state licenses are usually based on the results of the NBCOT Certification Examination. Note that a felony conviction may affect a graduate’s ability to sit for the NBCOT certification examination or attain state licensure.
- Jacqueline W. Lucas and Maria A. Villarroel, “Telemedicine Use Among Adults: United States, 2021,” Centers for Disease Control, last modified October 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db445.htm.
- Precedence Research, “Telehealth Market to Hit Enormous Growth of 24.13% by 2032,” GlobeNewswire, last modified April 24, 2023, https://www.globenewswire.com/en/news-release/2023/04/24/2652922/0/en/Telehealth-Market-to-Hit-Enormous-Growth-of-24-13-By-2032.html.
- American Medical Association, “AMA Survey Shows Widespread Enthusiasm for Telehealth,” American Medical Association, last modified March 23, 2022, https://www.ama-assn.org/press-center/press-releases/ama-survey-shows-widespread-enthusiasm-telehealth.
- American Occupational Therapy Association. “Telehealth Resources,” https://www.aota.org/practice/practice-essentials/telehealth-resources.
- National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy. “NBCOT,” National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy, https://www.nbcot.org/.
- American Occupational Therapy Association, “State Occupational Therapy Regulatory Authority Contact Information,” https://myaota.aota.org/regulatorycontacts.aspx.