Denise Santos received her diploma from the University of Santo Tomas in 2015. Like countless of others before her, she only chose the undergraduate program in Occupational Therapy as a prelude to medical school.

She tells MIMS, however, that by her third year, she realized that doing occupational therapy is something that she enjoyed and wanted to keep on doing. This realization, as it turns out,is common to a lot of occupational therapy students.

Vern Villanueva, for instance, was also just looking for a pre-med degree. Initially, she tells MIMS, she was choosing between physical therapy and occupational therapy. But, since her brother already took up occupational therapy, she understood more of it and thought it was the safer choice.

Eventually, she grew to love occupational therapy and found fulfilment in its practice.

Today, both women are practicing professionals. Denise, now a Paediatric Occupational Therapist, gets to work with children, typically with special needs. Part of her job is to teach them skills that are critical to everyday living and to reduce associated behaviours that may interfere with said skills.

Vern, after graduating from the College of Allied Medical Professions at the University of the Philippines Manila, is now also a practicing occupational therapy consultant at a paediatric clinic. As part of her job, she conducts evaluation and treatment of a variety of cases in children, mostly those with sensory issues.

Inaccessible and underappreciated

“Being an occupational therapist demands you to use almost every skill that you have. One of my co-therapists once said that we are like actors and actresses who have to change our use of [the] self, depending on the behaviour of our kids and sometimes the parents as well,” Vern explains in an e-mail to MIMS.

Aside from that, she continues, there is a critical lack of facilities and professionals here in the Philippines. There is, indeed, a great number of people in need of occupational therapy services who are essentially unable to avail of any because there are only very few clinics, most of them found only in Metro Manila.

To compound this problem, not every clinic can offer the services that each patient will need, largely because there is also a shortage of qualified professionals in each specialization of occupational therapy. Most of these patients also do not have ample resources which separates them further from the appropriate occupational therapy services.

The Clinic for Therapy Services, a college-based clinic run by the University of the Philippines College of Allied Medical Professions, for example, has hundreds on its waiting list. In some instances, it can take years for prospective patients to get a slot, and even then they get only 10 sessions, inclusive of the initial evaluations.

The clinic is manned by fourth year interns of the College of Allied Medical Professions under the supervision of licensed and experienced professionals.  It is also one of the very few that offer accessible and quality therapeutic services to the public.

Vern Villanueva at work with a child patient

Vern Villanueva at work with a child patient

Another problem that the profession must contend with, Vern laments,is that, despite having a board exam, the industry is still poorly regulated, especially in the provinces. There have been reports, she continues, of unlicensed therapists practicing occupational therapy without the knowledge of their clients.This, understandably, is unethical and dangerous.

The root of all of these is that occupational therapy, Denise explains, is still unfortunately seen as secondary in well-being and health, a bane that it shares with most other allied medical professions. In fact, Vern says, occupational therapists tend to lose count of the number of times they’ve justified their job to other people.

“Occupational therapy, in general, is a relatively new profession. And most of what we do is not widely known. People tend to disregard our profession because they lack this awareness of our needs here in the Philippines,” Denise writes in an e-mail to MIMS.

Rigorous but rewarding

Despite these hurdles, Denise maintains that occupational therapy is not only a worthwhile career, but also a rewarding one. Indeed, she continues, the satisfaction of seeing the clients progress and master certain skills because of therapy is almost unrivaled.

“To see how far they’ve come since we first met them [is satisfying]. It’s nice to see their family members smile [because of] their progress and the things they could possibly do in the future because of these skills,” she shares.

Even just for practicality’s sake, occupational therapy is a good career choice. Make no mistake, however, because the path to becoming an Occupational Therapist is not, by any standard, easy; in Denise’s words: “studying is always the difficult part of this journey.”

In many ways, occupational therapy is a lot like medicine: the overlapping subjects, the ungodly volume of concepts to understand and learn, the “countless sleepless nights, terrifying practical and oral exams, and endless homework.”

All of these are on top of the internship and board exams that graduates must also hurdle.

The industry that they enter afterwards, however, is nothing short of rewarding. Mostly because the practice is still in its infancy, Occupational Therapists are still currently high in demand, receive good pay, have a wealth of opportunities to work internationally, and enjoy very flexible schedules.

“Some of us work four times a week only. Others work six times a week but on a half-day basis. And although our work can be tiring, we never have graveyard shifts,” Denise explains, highlighting different schedules that Occupational Therapists can assume.

Vern concludes nicely: “The path towards becoming an occupational therapist may be long and difficult so you really have to know if this is your passion. If it is, then you'll never be bored when you get licensed. It will be a different case every day. It will be a continuous learning experience. You'll be able to help many families and it will be very rewarding to hear their good feedback. MIMS

Read more:

The overlooked experts of movement
Therapy 101: What a beginner should know about therapy