A Take on The New Persona of Occupational Therapy

I knew something was up when I received 20 telephone calls and 15 urgent emails by 7:30 AM on February 25, 2010. An article entitled, “Watch How You Hold That Crayon”, focusing exclusively on occupational therapy was published on the front page of the Style Section in my hometown paper, the prestigious New York Times. This last year had been a challenging one for many private practitioners in New York, and other parts of the country. The uncertainty of health care reform loomed large, as did the persistent recession. My message all along had been to keep your eyes open, because no matter what, healthcare was changing, and so were our patients. We were shifting from a health care referral system to a consumer choice system, as competition for healthcare dollars increased. With this in mind, one of my main focuses for the past twelve months had been on helping therapists establish new and effective marketing campaigns, with the goal of focusing on image and consumer education to increase awareness of our services. Was this article an opportunity to put my preaching into practice?

Publicity and advertising are two different entities, and the best marketing plans have a mixture of both. The old adage, Advertising you pay for, publicity you pray for is only true if it is publicity you want. Usually, our field usually only gets bad publicity for a rare billing scandal, and unfortunately a NY OT was arrested in November for billing fraud and charged with grand theft larceny. This particular article was troubling at first read for how it portrayed therapists who helped students refine handwriting techniques, grips, and other fine motor skills. The gist of this article was that ”…in affluent neighborhoods in and around New York, occupational therapists have taken their place next to academic tutors, psychologists, private coaches and personal trainers — the army that often stands behind academically successful students.” Many of the therapists who contacted me were outraged, and felt that the article belittled the professional, painted them in a negative light, and trivialized their work.

I saw some positives about the article . Occupational therapists are really starting to connect with the public, consumers are beginning to know us, and our horizons are being broadened professionally. While this may not be germane to all OTs, more and more OTs are seeing new applications of our skill sets and a broadening of the scope and capacity of our practice, all within the framework of the individual state practice acts. Some of us may choose to work with people who may not have a diagnosis per say, but still desire assistance to achieve their maximal physical and mental functioning in daily life tasks. In this day and age when more and more people are seeking enrichment and refinement in all facets of their lives, and wellness is a trillion dollar industry, many OTs may have the skills and fortitude to capitalize on this trend in a professionally sound manner.

I am happy the NY Times wrote the article because it opened a dialogue. I do wish the article appeared in the Science Section instead of the Style Section of the NY Times, but I see it as the beginning of an opportunity. If members of the profession are not happy about the way in which OT was portrayed, we can strive to set the record straight, and showcase our expertise and competence in a different manner. The public persona of OT is ours to mold, and each of us who goes out and practices the profession is an ambassador for the field. Just as important as the article itself were the more than 130 reader comments that the article generated. The overwhelming majority of those were from parents and educators all attesting to the positive attributes of OTs who have helped children improve their fine motor skills, hone their handwriting abilities, succeed and stay on target in school, and help uncover undetected issues.

I invite you all the read the article, and the reader comments, and draw your own conclusions.

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