The importance of occupational therapy in third world countries

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One of the great tensions in modern medical missions is short-term trips and long-term service. There are varying opinions on whether one is better than another and whether or not there is value or harm in many short-term trips. What I mean is, what’s more valuable to the people you’re serving? Occupational Therapy (OT) is an arm of healthcare that needs to be carefully evaluated in this light because providing OT services in the short-term may or may not be the best help over the long term. Let’s look at what OT is, why it’s important, how it can be helpful, and how you can use your gifts properly to serve others in the best ways. 

What is Occupational Therapy?

The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) states, “occupational therapy services are provided for habilitation, rehabilitation, and the promotion of health and wellness to those who have or are at risk for developing an illness, injury, disease, disorder, condition, impairment, disability, activity limitation, or participation restriction”.

Why is Occupational Therapy important?

Providing occupational therapy services in developing countries requires sensitivity to the cultural and health conditions of the host country. This is vital to know because, in the United States, we understand occupational therapists change lives all of the time. We know they make a difference in children’s lives too—helping with everything from developmental delays, to Autism, to Down syndrome. 

OT’s are vital in ensuring people are able to participate in their daily routines. OT’s help hurting people physically function and learn to engage in life despite difficulties. Make no mistake about it, occupational therapy is vital. Therefore, you, the OT, are needed to serve using your gifts and skill all over the globe. But, OT must be done with intention and a desire to empower indigenous people, aware of the limitations and conditions of the host country’s resources.

What can Occupational Therapy (OT) do to help people? 

Many occupational therapists would love to use their skills in low-resource settings, but this requires great care and research before jumping in. There are questions about whether the Western biomedical model is appropriate in settings where primary health care is inadequate and specialized services would only reach a privileged few. This brings us to some things to be aware of in serving others through occupational therapy. 

What does the Occupational Therapist (OT) need to be aware of in serving?

We need to be aware of a sustainable plan of action to start. We need to first look at the healthcare system as a whole. Therapists should be looking for ways in which all members of society can receive healthcare and be looking for the ability of the system to continue the therapy services. This may be done by training workers in impoverished areas or providing educational opportunities for indigenous people that might study to become an OT.

How can the Occupational Therapist (OT) get started in serving others? 

Let’s look at four areas where you can get started with occupational therapy.

Strategy #1 Assess

One important thing is to look at what the country or region actually needs. OT services in the United States may look different than OT services in a different country. 

One strategy is to develop a comprehensive rehabilitation plan that encompasses all aspects of health rather than just looking at OT services. For long-term service, this might include a team of providers, rather than just an Occupational Therapist. In short-term trips, this might mean training local physicians or Christian health workers in all aspects of rehabilitation. Honestly, the best approach is for occupational therapy consultants to assess the need for services in a particular country. To start, at least three areas must be assessed: 1) patterns of morbidity and mortality; 2) patterns of health care distribution; and 3) the ability to sustain occupational therapy services.

Strategy #2: Evaluate 

Next, it’s time to evaluate the patterns of health care distribution. This requires the OT to truly assess needs in the area. You must be sure you get past the centers which are already, in many ways, established. In many countries, this means going beyond the urban areas into rural areas. These rural areas need all of the help they can get, in most cases. You can serve them well by coming alongside them and helping provide a more balanced approach with a more full range of equipment and services where possible. The important thing is that you don’t evaluate on your own and only from a Western perspective, but alongside the indigenous people of that area.

Strategy #3: Aid

After you’ve assessed and evaluated the area you’re looking to serve, it’s time to look at the strategies related to the development of OT in said area. I've seen many strategies that can ultimately aid the development of occupational therapy in countries that need more resources. For example, aid may mean 1) documenting the actual needs around the region, 2) helping teach and train on the importance of a plan for increasing help in the area, 3) considering and prioritizing needs for the region, and finally, 4) writing down and creating a process around teaching and training for future growth and help in the area. 

Strategy #4: Plan

You don’t have to have a perfect plan. You just have to start with a plan. Your plan should include defining what rehab and services look like. What’s the end-goal for services? What does success in an area look like? It’s vital you the missionary work that serves the needs of the people in the area you’re serving with the people you are serving. This is boots-on-the-ground data you’re looking for. 

Any decent plan should include defining the needs and how best to get at helping fix those needs. Who are the points of contact for the area? What are the specialties and/or specialists that need to be contacted within the region so the person has the best overall care? While there will not be a one size fits all approach and what works in the United States will probably not work in the area you’re serving. But, it’s vital you work to do for one what you would wish to do for all.

We’ve reviewed what OT is, why it’s important, how it can be helpful, and how you can use your gifts properly to serve others best. If God is calling you to serve others through OT, my encouragement to you is to review this post to help get you started down the right path to serving well. 

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