Hand Therapist Training Programs and Requirements

A hand therapist rehabilitates patients' upper extremities, such as hands or arms, that have become impaired due to injury or disability. These professionals typically start out as occupational or physical therapists and receive advanced, specialized training to become hand therapists. A bachelor's degree in occupational or physical therapy is required to begin a career as a hand therapist, but a master's degree is preferred.

Training Requirements and Recommendations

A master's degree in occupational therapy is generally the minimum requirement for hand therapy professionals, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov). Most employers also seek job candidates with at least one year of experience, a valid driver's license and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification. Candidates with hand, splinting and wound care experience are preferred. Hand therapists should be energetic and well-organized and have good interpersonal skills.

Formal Education

Admission to occupational therapy bachelor's and master's degree programs is competitive, so most colleges and universities seek candidates with at least a 3.0 grade point average. Students should choose an occupational therapy program that is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education.

Bachelor's Degree in Occupational Therapy

Bachelor's degree curricula for occupational therapy majors combine general education classes with core occupational therapy courses and fieldwork. Students explore social and behavioral sciences, such as psychology, anatomy, sociology, neurology and physiology. They also gain knowledge of the upper extremities, medical equipment, treatment options and therapeutic exercises.

Master's Degree in Occupational Therapy

In a master's degree program, students focus on research and advanced occupational therapy theories and practice. The first year of study is usually dedicated to coursework, while the second is focused on clinical training. Students typically complete six months of supervised fieldwork, reviewing case studies and exploring various research methods. Graduates of a master's degree program should be able to assess patients, provide appropriate therapy and manage the progress and effectiveness of treatment over time.

Job Experience

Hand therapists typically work in schools, hospitals or private physical therapy practices. Employers seek job candidates with prior experience at one or more of these facilities, which can be gained through college-level clinical work and internships. Some hospitals and medical centers also offer postgraduate fellowships in hand therapy, which generally last from six months to a year.

Licenses and Certifications

Occupational and physical therapists, including hand therapists, must earn state licensure. Requirements vary but generally include graduation from an accredited occupational therapy program and passage of a national exam.

Voluntary certification as a hand therapist is offered through the Hand Therapy Certification Commission (www.htcc.org). A current physical or occupational therapy license is required to apply for certification, in addition to a minimum of 4,000 hours of direct practice experience in hand therapy and five years as a physical or occupational therapist. Certification is valid for five years and requires continuing education courses to recertify.

Workshops and Seminars

The American Society of Hand Therapists (www.asht.org) hosts an annual meeting that includes instructional seminars on the latest findings in rehabilitation and discussions on topics like orthotics, billing and nerve transmission. Some medical facilities offer introductory, 1- to 2-day workshops for individuals who already work in the medical field and are interested in hand therapy.

Additional Professional Development

To remain competitive in their field, hand therapists might consider specializing in pediatrics, mental health or gerontology. In the case of pediatrics, the Newborn Individualized Developmental Care and Assessment Program Federation International (www.nidcap.org) offers a training program for hand therapists interested in treating newborns.

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