Friday, 19 August 2011

Quest for a Professional Identity

Often, I find myself frustrated at the people’s lack of understanding of what it is that I do. Many, my family included, seem to believe that my occupational therapy degree is some “type of nursing” degree. I will admit that, three years ago when starting out in OT , I struggled to provide a clear answer as to what it was I was actually studying and going to be and sometimes I still do. Really it is not through a specific fault that there is this unawareness, but reading a recent article really hit the ‘nail on the head’ for me, it is that due to being such a young profession we as yet lack a firmly established identity.

This year’s Elizabeth Casson Memorial Lecture (BJOT, 2011) examines the growth and development of our profession, the impact of this upon our current identity and how we can now move towards professional maturation.  Our profession is a relatively new one, described as being in a period of late adolescence, and like many teenagers we are still trying to find our place in the world, formulating our identities. As a profession, it is clear we need to adopt a clear and firm identity to move into maturity if we are to survive, a point which is further highlighted by this article.

I can imagine, many OTs disagreeing with this issue that our profession lacks a clear identity, but can we really say that OTs in a physical setting could deliver the same response as those in the mental health setting. This is the point which I am trying to raise regarding a lack of identity, we do not share one as a professional group – we share a philosophy regarding the impact occupation has, but as yet not an identity.

This ‘shared identity’ concept is demonstrated by Turner who outlines that our practice setting can have a heavy influence on how we work, using musician Issac Stern’s notion of ‘not confusing the instrument with the music’. The instrument in our case refers to the setting in which we practice with our music being our philosophy of occupation and health – we must ensure that our music therefore remains the same no matter the instrument that we play it on (Turner, 2011).

Turner also highlights three task areas which we must overcome to reach successful maturation – academic competence; professional competence and the development of strategic alliances. There are many challenges with which we are presented with in each area including, ensuring that our students are instilled with the core values required to drive our profession forward whilst acquiring skills for use in their work. As professionals we must ensure we are able to move with the ongoing changes facing our health and social care system, whilst ensuring we maintain our core philosophy. Further to these, Turner highlights that we need to foster alliances who will aid our development, including those allies who lie outside and beyond of our perceived current practices. It is important that when doing this we are active players in the decision-making, acting as drivers if we are to survive, and not remain complacent with being driven.

I’m going to cut this short now, and realise that I may have rambled and not been too clear on my point – but it is that, my belief is we lack a shared professional identity and we must achieve one. My views are likely to receive much criticism, as is the article which I have discussed within this (albeit, not too critically) in support of my view. It is however important to question if you believe we do have one such identity – what is it and is it one which we can share completely. I can’t offer any solution to this quest for an identity but if we are more open to question and debate of this issue and solving these tasks, I think we can move into maturity and run independently alongside our more prominent colleagues.

Any comments, questions and structured criticisms welcome.

Article Discussed
Turner A (2011) The Elizabeth Casson Memorial Lecture 2011: Occupational therapy – a profession in adolescence? British Journal of Occupational Therapy. 74(7) 314-322


  1. Great post... although I think that occupational therapy shares neither a professional philosophy nor a professional identity. I also think that until we recognise / adopt a unified professional philosophy then we have no hope of sharing an identity.

    What occupational therapists do in every setting and role _should_ be identical - promoting and maintaining health through occupation. How we do that might change slightly between settings and situations but that is what we all _should_ be doing. However, we are not all doing that and so until we do then we are fighting a losing battle to form a shared professional identity.

    Matthew Molineux

  2. I enjoyed reading your post - interesting food for thought.

    I feel that as OTs we do have a shared identity, but that we are nowhere near being able to express what that is to other people. What we have in common is our approach, and I am amazed at how similar this is globally.

    However, our treatment modalities vary significantly between settings, which is what makes us so difficult to describe to other people. Many other professions have specific treatment modalities that they use to define themselves, and we will never have this.

    Our approach is to enable participation in meaningful occupations, and to use whatever tools fit with the person and the environment. These factors vary so widely that OT interventions look different every time we use them. I think this is what makes us so difficult to describe.

    I think that we have work to do on defining and describing our approach, and providing an evidence base to support it.

  3. Hi, Thanks for your comments they have really been food for thought. Just from these two comments and a few I've received via twitter alone the one thing that I am finding is shared is the need for this to be further explored. I suppose I agree to a degree with you Linda that we as a collective have great difficulty in expressing ourselves. I just hope this is something which will change - its something that must be discussed between those at the unqualified (including students) and qualified stages no matter the experiences

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