For prospective students of a master’s in occupational therapy degree program, finishing graduate school won’t just leave you with one of the highest paying master’s degrees. Your education will also open a lot of new doors. Job opportunities for occupational therapists are on the rise due to many factors. Among the most relevant factors contributing to the demand for occupational therapists are the care needed to keep an aging population active, treatments for distinctive conditions like autism spectrum disorder and, more generally, more access to therapy through expanded insurance coverage.
The Unusually High Rate of Job Growth for Occupational Therapists
For the period of 2019 through 2029, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expected job opportunities in the United States to increase by just 4 percent across all occupations. For workers in the occupational group of healthcare diagnosing or treating professionals, the rate of job growth expected over the same timeframe was more than twice as high, at 10 percent. However, occupational therapists are seeing an even larger boom in employment prospects. The BLS anticipates a 16 percent improvement in job opportunities for occupational therapists, quadrupling the growth rate the Bureau predicted for all occupations.
If the BLS’s estimates are accurate, the result will be 22,700 new occupational therapist jobs added to the American economy over a decade, bringing the number of occupational therapists in the U.S. from 143,300 to 166,000.
Longer Lifespans and More Active Senior Years
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A major reason why more occupational therapists will be needed, according to the BLS, is because the exceptionally large Baby Boomer generation is aging. Baby Boomers are generally considered to have been born between 1946 and 1964, which means that, by 2029, the oldest Baby Boomers will be 83 and the youngest will be 65. Because there are so many Baby Boomers, and because this generation as a whole is living and remaining active longer than previous generations, there is a good chance that many Baby Boomers will need occupational therapy services at some point in their lives.
Medical advancements and improvements in care mean that more patients are surviving events like strokes, which can leave patients with serious disabilities. Patients are also living longer and fuller lives, even with chronic conditions like diabetes. Occupational therapy can assist patients with a range of medical conditions, from cerebral palsy to Alzheimer’s disease, as well as helping patients – particularly seniors – cope with common but potentially debilitating issues like arthritis.
Many aging adults want to stay in their homes rather than move to a nursing home. Although that’s not always possible for health reasons, occupational therapy can help keep patients independent and give them a better chance of being able to age in place.
Treatment for Patients With Autism Spectrum Disorder
One specific type of medical condition for which the use of occupational therapy has grown considerably – not necessarily among the Baby Boomer generation – is autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Occupational therapists routinely work with people who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, from toddlers to college-age young adults and beyond, according to the American Occupational Therapy Association.
Occupational therapists help with early detection of autism spectrum disorder by evaluating patients’ motor, cognitive, sensory and social skills. They also play a part in treating patients who have been diagnosed with ASD through providing direct therapeutic services and advocating for the help and resources patients need. Different patients who have been diagnosed with ASD may have very different needs, but the goal of the occupational therapist is to help improve patients’ skills in different areas of functioning and develop independent living skills within the realm of the patient’s potential.
Autism spectrum disorder rates have risen sharply in recent years, climbing from 6.7 diagnoses per 1,000 children in 2000 to 18.5 diagnoses per 1,000 children in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More Widespread Insurance Coverage of Occupational Therapy Services
A lot of people need occupational therapy at some point. Some get injured, in a sudden and catastrophic way or in a gradual fashion, such as a repetitive motion injury. Others need occupational therapy to manage chronic or long-term health conditions. Until relatively recently, though, many patients who could have benefited from occupational therapy weren’t able to get it.
One reason for the increased demand for occupational therapy professionals is improved access to therapy that resulted from changes in insurance coverage that accompanied the Affordable Care Act. Prior to this legislation, not only did many more Americans go without health insurance, but many health insurance policies did not cover, or severely restricted coverage to, occupational therapy services. Rehabilitative services, including occupational therapy, was one of the essential benefits insurance policies were required to cover as a result of the new law, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Health insurers may still limit how many sessions of rehabilitative or occupational therapy a covered member can use per policy period, but more patients than ever are able to get the care they need – which means more occupational therapists are needed.