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2017-10-20 / Front Page

Demand for occupational therapists continues to grow in Pennsylvania

BY R. BROCK PRONKO
Regional Business Analyst


Photo courtesy of Excela Health Photo courtesy of Excela Health Occupational therapy helps children with disabilities to participate fully in school and social situations, aids people recovering from injuries, surgeries or strokes and teaches older adults with chronic health problems how to become more independent.

For the most part, occupational therapists work with patients’ activities of daily living such as bathing/showering, toilet routines, dressing and eating/ swallowing. They also assist with instrumental activities of daily living, including meal preparation and cleanup, religious activities, safety procedures and shopping.

Medicare typically pays 80 percent of the occupational therapy costs for seniors and some younger people with disabilities. Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers that sell plans through Pennsylvania’s ACA marketplace are required to cover rehab services including occupational therapy. Medicaid does not pay for occupational therapy in Pennsylvania, but it does in Ohio and other states.


Occupational therapists often work with patients to help them complete every day tasks despite their physical impairment. 
Photo courtesy of Excela Health Occupational therapists often work with patients to help them complete every day tasks despite their physical impairment. Photo courtesy of Excela Health Given the size of Pennsylvania’s aging population, which ranks fifth nationally, occupational therapists are in high demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for occupational therapists is expected to grow by 27 percent by 2024. The mean income for OTs is $81,910 per year or $39.38 per hour.

A bachelor’s degree used to be the standard to become a certified OT, but today home care agencies and health systems are requiring a master’s or doctorate degree.

“Occupational therapy is more diverse than physical therapy or speech therapy, because we work with children, the geriatric population and the mental health population, so it requires more extensive training,” said Amy Pernelli, supervisor of homecare and hospice therapies for Excela Health Homecare and Hospice in Greensburg, Pa.

“We work well with physical therapists because we help patients with ambulation and functional mobility. We also work well with speech therapists because we address self-feeding and some cognitive issues.”

Being able to care for a wide array of patients has occupational therapists working in a variety of mental health facilities.

“We go into nursing homes, personal care homes and have some therapists at mental health facilities.”

There are also specialties within occupational therapy.

“You can earn a certificate in specific areas such as geriatrics, but some of the greatest demand for specialist that we’re seeing is for those who specialize in hand therapy or lymphedema therapy,” said Amy Sailor, director of Excela Health Rehabilitation.

“We have four hand therapists on staff, because we have an excellent hand surgeon, who does surgeries that need splinting and/or therapy to facilitate an optimal return to normal function.

“We also have lymphedema occupational therapists that work with post-mastectomy patients, because the operation causes swelling in the arms when the surgeon removes lymph nodes.”

Home Nursing Agency, headquartered in Altoona, serves 11 counties in central Pennsylvania, and is part of UPMC. Its services include occupational therapy.

“With our aging population, occupational therapy has become an increasingly important service for us,” said Shannon Bettwy, therapy supervisor at Home Nursing Agency.

One of the first things the agency’s OTs do is a safety evaluation to see how the patients move about at home. Can they get to the bathroom, the bedroom, the kitchen, the laundry room? Do they have to tackle steps? Are they using any assistance device such as a walker or cane or wheelchair?

“We’re looking at them in their home environment and determining how well they function and if they are safe in the way they are functioning,” said Bettwy.

“We also help patients with cognitive decline, mostly through compensation such as a dry-erase board or medication planner that has an alarm, so they know when to take their medications.

“We also reach out to their pharmacies, and some pharmacies will send medications to their home pre-packaged for the day and the time, which takes away the responsibility of someone having to take care of medication management.”

OTs are aided by assistants, a job that requires only two years of education.

“In home care, we probably use fewer assistants than any other setting because there’s a lot of clinical reasoning when you’re doing service in the home, and there’s no nurse at your disposal. Some insurers don’t cover OT assistants for home care,” said Bettwy.

“So, the need for certified occupational therapists is going to continue to grow.” .

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