An Overview of Occupational Therapy in the UK

Posted on Mar 23 2016 - 11:43am by Charlie


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Occupational Therapy is a dedicated form of support combining both physical and environmental aspects to focus upon achievement of a specific end goal. This goal is to enable people who suffer with a disability – either physical or mental – to safely carry out activities in the home, at school, or in the workplace that will help to contribute towards leading a healthy and normal lifestyle. Completion of these activities may prove to be difficult or painful without the support of occupational therapy.
This form of therapy has a long history in the UK, being first used in an official capacity in the 1920s to prepare those who had previously suffered with debilitating conditions such as tuberculosis to return to the workforce, following the injury of soldiers during the Great War. Today, there are more than 36,000 registered occupational therapists across the country, supporting some of the 11 million disabled people currently living in the UK. The most common forms of disability in the UK include those that affect mobility and the ability to lift or carry objects – issues that can be suitably addressed through therapy.

Who Accesses Occupational Therapy?

Occupational therapy is accessed by people of all ages who have an existing medical, physical, or psychological condition which makes it difficult for them to lead a normal life. Children with learning difficulties, for example, may require additional support in school, such as a tailored programme which breaks information down into more manageable, bite-sized chunks. Adults with mobility issues which make it difficult to complete tasks in the home may access occupational therapy in order to adequately alter their home environment, such as having a high quality stairlift installed in a multi storey property.

Occupational therapy also plays a huge role in transition, such as older people transitioning from a hospital stay back to their home, or when transitioning from one home to another. The College of Occupational Therapists estimates that around 17 percent of all referrals to an occupational therapist are due to transition. In these cases, trained therapists are able to work with people to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and ensure they are fully prepared for a safer and secure transition.

Does Occupational Therapy Work?

A question that many people ask is ‘does occupational therapy work?’ The NHS reports that occupational therapy can be used to support people with many different conditions and who have been diagnosed with a number of diseases, including stroke, hip fracture, dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and many more. As with any form of therapy, success rates for individual conditions will vary, with some reporting a significant improvement, and others reporting mild improvements.


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What we do know, however, is that occupational therapy can make a huge difference in terms of day-to-day life, particularly in the elderly. Research studies have reported a 77 percent improvement in activities of daily living (ADLs) amongst frail older people, a significant reduction in falls in elderly people living at home in the community, and an improvement in quality of life in older people with dementia.

What to Expect From Occupational Therapy

There is a common misconception that occupational therapy focuses upon what a person cannot do. While it is true that the ultimate aim of occupational therapy is to overcome difficulties when carrying out certain tasks, there is actually a much larger focus on what a person can do. Through identifying particular strengths, it becomes easier to select the most suitable methods and techniques for supporting people to achieve their goals. Therefore, you can expect your occupational therapist to work with you to determine your strong areas, and discuss how you can use your strengths to improve your weaknesses. A risk assessment will often be performed to ensure your safety throughout the process.

An Occupational Therapist will provide support using a combination of three distinct techniques:

* Rethinking Common Methods

If the ‘normal’ way of doing something doesn’t work for you, an occupational therapist can help you find alternative methods to achieve the same end goal. If you’re unable to walk to the shops, is there any suitable public transport nearby? If you’re unable to stand for long periods to prepare food, is it possible to put a chair in the kitchen to enable you to sit while you cook?


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* Addressing the Surrounding Environment

This technique involves assessing the environment that you struggle to live or work in, and determining whether anything could be changed to facilitate greater normality. If you’re unable to use the stairs at your home or in the workplace, would it be possible to install a ramp, a lift, or a stairlift? Is it possible to move items to lower shelves to enable you to reach better?

* Introducing Tailored Equipment

Special equipment can help to make difficult tasks much simpler. People with Parkinson’s Disease, for example, may struggle to use manual items like tin openers, so an occupational therapist may suggest working with electronic or automated gadgets. People unable to hold a pen may benefit from special pen grips that simply slide over the end of a standard biro.

Older people who struggle with maintaining independence in the home, for example, may feel confident in carrying out tasks such as personal care which can help boost independence, but sometimes find it difficult physically to undertake these activities due to mobility issues. In this scenario, an occupational therapist may find it suitable to install equipment like grab rails at the side of the bath to make it easier to bathe. Similarly, a child with dyspraxia may show signs of being very creative, and enjoy learning through creative play. However, they may struggle to hold a pen or use scissors. An occupational therapist may suggest using specially-adapted equipment to enable the child to continue learning and playing.

How to Access Occupational Therapy

The good news is that occupational therapy in the UK is taken very seriously, and the advantages of such support are widely documented. England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland all include occupational therapy as part of their policies on human rights. There are three ways in which you can access occupational therapy in the UK:


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* NHS Referral

If you have a short term condition which may be alleviated through occupational therapy support, you may be able to be referred by your family doctor. Short term conditions are categorised as those which temporarily affect your ability to carry out daily tasks at home, at school, or at work, such as pain or loss of movement following an operation.

* Local Council Referral

If you have a long term condition, or a degenerative condition, that is unlikely to improve in the future, you may be able to get a referral to an occupational therapist through your local council as part of their social services programme. Eligibility criteria will often vary between councils. Councils often work alongside the NHS and other organisations to provide suitable support.

* Private Occupational Therapy

A third option for accessing occupational therapy is to go private and contact an occupational therapist in your area directly. You may be able to access therapy more rapidly, although there will be a charge for the service. If you do choose to access occupational therapy privately, ensure that your therapist is registered with the Health & Care Professionals Council (HCPC).

Occupational Therapy Costs

If occupational therapy has been accessed through a referral either by a GP or by a local council, there will not usually be a charge for the service. If accessing private occupational therapy, costs will be determined by the individual provider. In many cases, costs for necessary equipment or home improvements for people who have been referred by a GP or local council will also be covered. However, large items and major renovations may incur a cost. You may be able to apply for a Disabled Facilities Grant to provide financial assistance for alterations to the home; alternatively, the government-backed Access to Work scheme may be able to help towards costs of specialist equipment for the workplace.

While there may be costs associated with occupational therapy, it’s important to consider these costs in relation to potential healthcare outlay in the future. The College of Occupational Therapists claims that future healthcare costs (such as prescription medications, or over-the-counter painkillers, for example), can be reduced by up to 50 percent in those who access occupational therapy as a preventative measure, to minimise deterioration of existing health conditions which are a major risk factor to future ability.

Article contributed by Harold Rigby, health and lifestyle writer.

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