Are You the OT Leader We Need?

When was the last time you heard of an occupational therapist (OT) who was president of a hospital? Or what about one who created a game-changing tech device? For that matter, how many true leaders do you know in the clinical OT realm?

Where Are the OT Leaders?

You might have to rack your brain a bit to think of examples, and that’s not surprising. The healthcare landscape is rapidly changing, and like many other professions, occupational therapy is trying to find its footing.

We Need Good OT Leaders

The mounting pressure of increasing paperwork and productivity expectations weighs heavy on clinicians’ shoulders. This is taking a toll on our overall happiness and job satisfaction.

Now, more than ever, good leadership is needed in the OT profession.

We’re often conditioned to think of ourselves as battle-worn soldiers, doing the hard work on the front lines with our patients. We sweat, laugh, and cry with them and share their ups and downs in ways only a therapist can. Yet in order to preserve the sanctity of what we do—to keep our clinicians happy and our patients receiving the care they deserve—we need good, strong leaders in our profession.

Leaders who will defend our patients’ rights to our care.

Leaders who will fight for clinicians’ health, well-being, and financial security.

Leaders who can advocate on behalf of our profession.

Leaders who are occupational therapists.

But the issue is even larger than our profession. Healthcare as a whole needs leaders who are prepared to reimagine how we deliver care.

In 2008, Jeff Snodgrass and Mickey Shachar offered a summation of the need for leadership in healthcare. Their article noted that an Institute of Medicine (IOM) report suggested that the US healthcare delivery system “does not offer consistent, high-quality, effective care to all people, due in part to the poor organization of the healthcare delivery system.”1

The article goes on to assert that the report was a “call to arms” for the redesign of health organizations to achieve higher levels of organizational effectiveness: “This cannot be achieved without strong leadership and further suggested that discovering new ways to promote leadership development in healthcare organizations is critical.”

This is even more relevant today than when the article was published a decade ago.

Why Aren’t OTs Stepping Up to Lead?

1. It’s scary.

When you’re used to being a field soldier, the prospect of leading is scary. It’s not surprising that in a female-dominated field, OTs may not be socialized to lead in the traditional sense—even if we do possess natural leadership skills that help us guide our patients to improved function.

2. It can be expensive.

Advocacy isn’t cheap. And that’s how many OT leaders get their starts: by becoming active in the local American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) community. Joining the AOTA is a financial investment, and when we have competing financial priorities in our lives, membership dues may or may not make the cut.

3. It’s extra work and stress.

In many cases, leadership is not rewarded. For example, if you step up to help with scheduling or offer to sit on an interdisciplinary panel, your paycheck might not reflect that fact. And your productivity might suffer in the process, causing you extra stress and making you feel like it’s not worth it.

Why We Need More OTs Leading

Right now, as in so many other professions, it can feel like everything we do is dictated by financial concerns, and if we’re not “productive” or “billable,” we’re useless. But that’s not actually the case, and we can change perceptions if we speak up, lead, and advocate for change.

OTs are natural-born leaders. Here’s why:

We have mastered the art of using a holistic lens—We are accustomed to integrating research data and personal factors in our decision making for our clients. This is exactly what is needed in leaders: people who can analyze numbers and data and then incorporate it into our work with emotional intelligence.

We are natural bridge builders—We are used to forming bonds with our clients and their families and managing the expectations of these key stakeholders in our day-to-day operations. As we look to the future, building bridges between different disciplines will be absolutely necessary to providing great care and remaining relevant in the medical model.

Speaking of moving toward bridge building instead of siloed care, I love this quote from Sue Baptiste:

Moving from a posture of defensiveness to one of comfort with professional mission and value is essential, as is teaching our students the value of occupational therapy rather than suggesting they develop skills to defend themselves in an interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary culture.”2

We are techies—Part of providing great care to our clients is staying current on new technology developments to help them. This can include emerging technologies, like the MedBridge GO app and other forms of teletherapy.

What Does This Mean for Aspiring OT Leaders?

A doctorate is soon to be the gold standard for the practice of occupational therapy. With OTs now required to invest in a high-level graduate degree by 2027 for entry into practice, we should demonstrate our leadership potential and encourage the next generation of clinicians to step up to the plate.

Where to Start

If you feel the leadership call but are uncertain where to start, take a look at these MedBridge courses accredited for occupational therapists in Nebraska, where I live. You can filter the leadership courses to learn which ones are accredited in your particular state.

MedBridge also offers a Leadership Certificate—a full series to give you the information you need to build leadership skills.

Some Final Words of Encouragement

Rita Fleming-Castaldy and John Patro note that all occupational therapy practitioners would benefit from actively reflecting on these five leadership characteristics:

  • Challenging the process
  • Inspiring a shared vision
  • Enabling others to act
  • Modeling the way
  • Encouraging the heart3

Whether you are ready to apply today for a managerial role or you are simply looking to start practicing more leadership skills in your current role, if you are reading this, I suspect that you already have these qualities growing in you. I look forward to seeing how you wield them.

  1. Snodgrass, J. & Schachar, M. (2008). Faculty perceptions of occupational therapy program directors’ leadership styles and outcomes of leadership. Journal of Allied Health, 37(4), 225-235.
  2. Baptiste, S. (2000). Visioning together for leadership. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67(2), 81-85.
  3. Fleming-Castaldy, R.P. & Patro, J. (2012). Leadership in occupational therapy: self-perceptions of occupational therapy managers. Occupational Therapy Health Care, 26(2-3), 187-202.