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Interdisciplinary Communication for Occupational Therapists

by Brittany Ferri


One thing that occupational therapists in any setting have in common is their interactions with other healthcare disciplines. There are many other healthcare practitioners, some licensed and some unlicensed, who we need to work within varying degrees to be successful.

Most of us can agree that interprofessional work is a large part of forming our professional reputation and making our profession better known, yet sometimes communicating across fields can be difficult. So what are some of the best ways to ensure a smooth working relationship with other disciplines?

Knowing everyone’s role

Unfortunately, some therapists may not even know the exact role of the healthcare professionals they work most closely with. This makes it much more difficult to effectively communicate and collaborate in the workplace.

Many OTs have worked with physical therapists/physical therapy assistants and speech therapists/speech therapy assistants. Most OTs have also worked with registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, certified nursing assistants, social workers, athletic trainers, medical doctors, physician’s assistants, and recreation therapists. These professionals all have different and unique roles within a healthcare setting. If you are unsure about what a certain professional does within your facility, the best thing to do is research or directly ask them. This can help break the ice and pave the way for further communications and even start a trend of referrals.

  • Educate yourself on each professional’s duties, role, and scope of practice: This will help grow your own knowledge while expanding your research skills
  • Seek opportunities for collaboration with professionals from other disciplines: Collaboration will help you become a more skilled therapist with better teamwork skills

Understand each person’s perspective

Each professional possesses a different education, clinical skill set, and cultural background, all of which combine to form a unique perspective in their treatment of patients. While diverse backgrounds may be a good thing for bringing new methods to their patient care, these differences also may be off-putting to other therapists. Your natural instinct may be to question something you have never seen before.

This can be good if it keeps you inquisitive and constantly learning things. However, questioning new ideas can turn bad if you are using them to criticize or judge a topic you are not educated on. Use this as a learning experience by taking the time to broaden your own knowledge. This may involve speaking with them about it or directing your own learning by doing research.

Furthermore, working with professionals from other disciplines engages a therapist's clinical judgment. For example, an OT relaying information to a speech-language pathologist (SLP) is more likely to relay information such as a shared patient aspirating during oral hygiene training. This relates directly to an SLP's job and will help them maintain safety precautions, plan for their next steps, and more.

  • Initiate opportunities for clinical brainstorming: Learn from the background of other professionals while solving difficult patient or population issues.
  • Use other professionals to widen your lens regarding your own patients: Adopt a more broad way of thinking to accurately and completely address each patient's problems.

Join committees

Depending on where you work, there are often opportunities to join or even lead committees related to a cause of interest. For example, some facilities may have a fall prevention committee, a pain, and palliative care committee, or a committee focused on preventing violence and other behavioral incidents. The purpose of these committees is to bring together opinions and views not only from multiple professionals but multiple disciplines. This is a fantastic way to learn what each person’s role is and how it can be integral in the mission to bring quality care to patients. Committees also take learning one step further by educating other professionals on the role of OT in that setting.

“Sometimes we might even have the same goal but look at a client's performance differently!”

Some therapists may feel as if they do not have anything to bring to the table in committees or large round table discussions. Even if you do not contribute anything to the discussion during your first time attending, you will likely take away pieces of valuable information to inform your practice and improve the care you provide. The range of information you absorb can only be enriched by being alongside professionals from other disciplines.

Expand your network

Groups with many people often do not skimp on introductions, so this can also be a good opportunity for disciplines to speak up and tell the group their role in a healthcare facility. Introductions can also greatly improve an individual’s ability to form relationships which can be used as future springboards for collaboration.

  • Strengthen your leadership skills: Work in many capacities with other professionals and learn from their unique roles.
  • Establish and maintain relationships with other professionals: Grow your ability to work alongside any professional.
  • Network with other professionals: Build connections to expand your own career opportunities.

Communication is a large part of anyone’s daily life, and even more important for those working in settings where safety and recovery are the utmost priorities. Maintaining open lines of communication in large facilities may be daunting and especially cumbersome for new graduates who may be intimidated by a new setting with so many professionals who have many years of experience.

This can be used as a learning opportunity to branch out and build confidence right alongside clinical know-how. Communication on all levels serves to improve not only the care we provide to each patient but also our own treatment skills.

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