Physical, occupational therapy offer opportunities, satisfaction
Employment Correspondent

One of Rudi Pijnnaken's pet peeves is when people define the differences between physical therapy and occupational therapy with a dividing line across the human body.

"There's a misconception right now that OT is the upper body, and PT is the lower body," said Pijnnaken, president of Physical Therapy International.

The differences between the two fields lie more in the professionals' goals and how they set about accomplishing them.

A stroke victim, for instance, might work with a physical therapist to regain the ability to get out of bed and walk.

The same patient might work with an occupational therapist during that time to tackle challenges such as going to the bathroom, showering and dressing.

"A lot of times physical therapists and occupational therapists work together," Pijnnaken said.

Sylvie Goldin works for Physical Therapy International as an occupational therapist specializing in pediatric patients. She said people who pursue careers in physical therapy tend to like organized, clear-cut approaches to problem solving.

"Occupational therapy demands a mental gymnastics," said Goldin, who also is a part-time instructor at University of Texas Medical Branch. "That whole mental creativity side is put to work in a major way.

"Physical therapy is more concrete," she said. "For Problem A, you do B, C and D."

Currently, opportunities exist in both fields, said Lynn Welch, a medical recruiter whose largest client is U.S. Physical Therapy.

Welch said she frequently finds herself seeking physical therapists for clients.

"The demand is great. There's a lot out there. In fact, I'm having difficulty recruiting good people.

"I'm seeing a lot of demand for occupational therapists, too," she said.

She said both fields can be lucrative, but the financial opportunities are greatest for those who start their own businesses.

That's the route Pijnnaken took. After completing his training in Holland, he began his career in physical therapy in 1983. His business, which he opened in 1990, specializes in home care. The company employs a team of physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists, along with social workers.

Those who work in physical therapy must have a master's degree and a professional license to enter the field. Occupational therapists can start working with a bachelor's degree, but a master's degree is expected to become a requirement in the next two to three years.

Those who work as physical therapists are primarily concerned with improving the physical functionality of their patients. To accomplish this goal, physical therapists spend a lot of time reducing or eliminating pain, so it doesn't become a stumbling block.

Physical therapists utilize a wide range of tools and technologies to meet their objectives, Pijnnaken said. Examples include cardiovascular equipment, weights, electronic stimulation devices and ultra sound technology, which can be used to work medication into the skin./p>

Physical therapists have a wide range of settings to pick from, including the home, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes and clinics. Patients can include babies and children, sports injury victims, car accident victims, stroke patients and people suffering from back and neck pain.

Unlike doctors, who usually have limited time to spend with patients, physical therapists have the benefit of building long-term relationships with the people they help. Pijnnaken usually sees patients for one-hour sessions three times a week.

"You can spend a lot of time with a patient, build a relationship and get the patient to trust you," he said. "When someone trusts me, I can push them to their limit. I can change their whole mind set and change their life."

The rewards are numerous in occupational therapy as well, said Mike Bradley, who made the switch from accountant to OT 10 years ago.

"It's a job where the people you work with really appreciate what you do," he said.

Bradley works at the Bayshore Medical Center in Pasadena. He said occupational therapists can help a wide range of patients from Alzheimer's disease patients and psychiatric patients to people with spinal cord injuries and people with amputations.

"Just about anything that can go wrong with you, an occupational therapist can help," he said.

What occupational therapy does not do, he said, is limit itself to helping people with work.

"Occupational is everything you: cooking or shopping or going fishing," Bradley said.

Occupational therapists work with a patient to determine what that person's needs are and to set realistic goals for mastering day-to-day life skills. They may teach the patient to use adaptive equipment to make their tasks easier, such as a "grabber" for picking up items from the floor.

The occupational therapist may assign activities to help patients master a needed skill. He or she may visit a home or work site to assess needs or problems there. The therapist also may work with family members to train them to help the patient.

"You can really make a difference in someone's life," he said.

Being empathetic to the whole patient - physical, psychological and social - is an important part of occupational therapy, Goldin said.

"As soon as you create an imbalance in one of the systems, it throws off each of the others," she said.

She described her current work with children in home settings as a hands-on, creative approach to health care with numerous emotional rewards.

"The most satisfying aspects are to see the children smile as they gradually increase their functional performance in play skills or self-help skills, to see their smiles as they develop mastery in abilities they did not possess, to see their parents learn and better understand their child and their needs, to empower them and facilitate the process of development and promote quality of daily life."

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