Most people don’t know hand therapy is a specialised field of occupational therapy until they are injured.
Then again, Perth occupational therapist Alison Bennett believes many people, including other health professionals, often have little knowledge or understanding of occupational therapy.
“I think the biggest challenge that faces OTs is the lack of awareness of who we are and what we do,” she said.
“I would regularly get from my patients ‘so are you a physio?’ or ‘what’s an OT?’.
“This is not only in the general population but also specifically in the health field.”
Occupational therapy helps people fully participate in activities in their day-to-day lives.
According to Occupational
Therapy Australia, the profession helps people cope with demands, adapt to tasks and overcome every-day challenges.
“They do this by using a person’s usual daily activities and tasks (their ‘occupations’) in a therapeutic way,” the OTA website states.
An OT for five years, Alison is the clinical manager of Hand Works Occupational Therapy – a Western Australian practice that specialises in treating patients with hand and upper limb injuries ranging from finger amputations to fractures and soft tissue injuries.
The practice, which has five clinics across Perth, provides services ranging from orthoses to neoprene braces, scar and wound management to rehabilitation for elbow, wrist and hand conditions.
Alison said it was rewarding to work as an OT in hand therapy, with the aim of making people’s lives easier and better.
“It’s amazing how important our hands are in the day to day operation of our lives,” she said.
“We definitely take them for granted but once they are injured it can severely impact our function. “Not any day is the same as the one before. Sure the diagnoses are the same but each hand is attached to a different person that comes with their own specific circumstances.
“I personally love that fact that at work I get to problem solve, create and make things using sewing machines and moldable plastics and decrease patients’ pain whilst increasing their abilities to get back to work or normal day-to-day life.”
Alison, who is also a senior occupational therapist at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, said OTs’ main treatment tools are thermoplastic splints/orthoses, which are used instead of plaster.
“The splints/orthoses are custom made to our patients’ hands or arms and are just as good or even better than Plaster of Paris,” she said.
“The plastic is light-weight, breathable and waterproof.”
Alison said she was thrilled to help one patient, who received a nasty injury working in the mines, achieve his dream of competing in Perth’s renowned two-day kayak event, the Avon Descent.
“Unfortunately a very heavy pole landed on his dominant right hand. The pole traumatically amputated his hand,” she said.
“He was transferred to one of our major hospitals where his hand was replanted. He unfortunately lost his index finger but the rest of his hand was reattached.
“I was lucky enough to see him through all of his post-operative treatment.
“To gain maximal function back he underwent hand therapy for almost a year and he had some small operations to assist in increasing the function of his hand throughout that time,” she said.
“The year after his accident my patient competed in the Avon Descent and completed the race. At last contact he was training to represent Australia in the Paralympics.”
Want to be an occupational therapist? Here are Alison’s tips for anyone considering occupational therapy:
Head along to the interest groups run by OTA so you can hear OTs talk about their particular field. This will give you the opportunity to mingle with them and ask questions
Try to arrange work experience within the OT field
Attend career days at your local universities to see the variety of areas OTs work in. OTs can work in hand therapy or work specifically with children or the elderly, in mental health, physical rehabilitation and vocational rehabilitation.