Observation hours are not only a requirement of becoming an occupational therapist, but also an important part of professional development and education. Observation hours typically are an experience therapy programs require to evaluate whether the profession is something an applicant is truly interested in. Typically applicants spend between 30 and 40 hours shadowing a working occupational therapist in the setting of their choice. Shadowing time is spent observing all the duties of a working therapist’s day, including treating patients, completing documentation, attending meetings, completing in-services, etc.
Occupational therapy is a diverse field with many different practice areas. Therefore, a therapist’s daily duties may vary greatly from one setting to another. This variation means no two therapists will have the same observation experience. Diversity is a positive thing for the profession, as it provides a good view of the options available to a new occupational therapy graduate.
In most programs, pre-occupational therapy students are expected to complete observation hours before entering the therapy program. Student will need to make these arrangements without assistance from professors. Doing research to arrange observation hours not only allows the student to know where therapists work in their area, but it also increases their awareness. Looking at building fronts where therapists may work gives a student a whole new perspective, as they can begin to look at their surroundings in terms of the opportunities they have. This research may consist of asking friends or therapists you know, calling clinics or facilities and asking if they have therapists, or even stopping by to inquire in person. The ability to network this way will prove useful throughout the rest of your academic career and when you are a working therapist.
By picking a place you are interested in, you are able to see first-hand whether it is a practice setting you like. If you can soon tell the outpatient clinic where you are currently observing is not a setting you’d like to work in, that isn’t your last option. It is typically recommended to stay and observe for several hours across one week to get a well-rounded view of that setting, as each day is different in any healthcare profession. However, you are not obligated to stay in one place and can opt to split your time between two settings if you are interested in both. This will give you two settings to consider real-life scenarios from when you enter the program. Occupational therapy programs give ample amounts of fieldwork, so there are still plenty of chances to do observing and even get hands-on experience in the other practice settings.
Once you choose a place, there will be a bit of a waiting period, as most facilities require volunteers and even those shadowing to go through the vetting process with testing and applications, just as staff need to do. This requires checking if vaccinations are up to date, including group vaccinations for MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) and TDAP (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) at a primary care doctor. Most individuals have received these; however, some may have not and others may need new ones if their blood tests do not show an immunity to these diseases. Once the vaccinations are received and a new blood test shows immunity, vaccinations are up to date. Also required are a PPD or tuberculosis skin test and flu shot, which can be done at the local pharmacy or walk-in clinic.
Proof of receiving these requirements will be shown to the facility where the observation hours will be done. While these vaccinations often cost money out of pocket, they are requirements for any and every therapy fieldwork during school as well as any therapy job. They are a good investment as it is preparation for most of the requirements of occupational therapy school.
Another good way to get observation hours is by entering a volunteer program at a local healthcare facility. Volunteering may entail being a rehab technician at an outpatient clinic or helping in patient transport at a hospital. Volunteer programs that work directly with rehab departments give you time spent with working occupational therapists (plus therapists of other disciplines). Rehab-related volunteer programs are the best fit in terms of counting toward observation hours. Some students may be interested in other volunteer programs within healthcare facilities, possibly reading to patients in nursing homes or helping with recreation activities at a hospital.
Students already involved in volunteer programs can speak with their volunteer coordinator regarding helping out in the rehab department of their facility to obtain observation hours. There may be some restrictions according to facility need and clearance needed to work in certain areas. However, most facilities will be accommodating to this request if you explain your reasoning.
Observation hours are one of the first opportunities students have to experience what being a therapist is like. The process to become a therapist is long and challenging, so observing can give a glimpse into what will be waiting at the end of the academic journey. Observing also provides good experience toward understanding the requirements needed to work in a healthcare facility in any capacity. It is the hope that observation experiences will inspire interested students to enter the field of occupational therapy.