Bianca de Loryn
College of Healthcare Sciences
27 September 2022
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JCU Alumni Mignon Prinsloo tells us about her journey to become an Occupational Therapist (OT) working in Hand Therapy, and why OT and Physiotherapy both have their place in a good rehabilitation program.
Some people grow up knowing they are destined for a certain profession, and everything else comes second. Others, however, grow up knowing they want a family and a life as well as a profession that does not demand shift work and long weekends. “When I was in year twelve, I knew I wanted to go to uni and I knew I wanted to work in the health care industry,” Mignon Prinsloo says. “I wanted to do something that was hands-on and make a difference in people's lives.” However, she wanted a good work-life balance as well and didn’t want to put her family and friends second.
What is Occupational Therapy?
When Mignon’s mother suggested she should study Occupational Therapy (OT), Mignon admits she didn’t even know what OT was. “I googled it and I saw that OTs helped people to rehabilitate from strokes, for example, and getting them back on their feet and back into their lives. That sounded like something I could imagine doing,” she says.
Mignon says that Occupational Therapy is a broad field, and there are many specialisations to choose from, including mental health, rehabilitation and paediatrics for example. Most people also think the word ‘occupation’ in Occupational Therapy means 'work’. “For us occupational therapists, anything a patient wants to do is an occupation,” says Mignon. “Of course, going to work is an occupation. But exercising is also an occupation, and so is cooking. We are looking at people’s lives in a holistic way.”
Helping people use their hands again
Mignon, for instance, is an Occupational Therapist working in hand and upper limb therapy. “I help people with the rehab that comes with upper limb injuries, from the shoulder all the way down to the fingers,” she says.
Mignon’s work is very ‘hands-on’ in several respects. “North Queensland has a lot of trades people and people working in the mines, and we are helping them get back to work and using their hands as soon as possible,” Mignon says. “But we also help people who have chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis, or if they've had a stroke. They might have poor hand function and just want to be able to do things a bit better.”
Some people might have trouble with their hands long-term, and Mignon looks after them as well. “We work with people who are on NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme), people who have got a lifelong disability,” Mignon says. “The function of their hands, for example, may decline if that's the progression of the condition that they have. That’s when we're trying to see how we can help them so they can use their hands for as long as possible.”
OTs who work in hand therapy also help people cope with the challenges of everyday life after surgery. “After someone had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome (a nerve compression condition which can cause pins and needles to the hand, as well as other issues), or when they've had fractures, I’m here to help,” Mignon says.
The difference between Occupational Therapy and Physiotherapy
Mignon says that people often confuse Occupational Therapy and Physiotherapy. “Physiotherapy helps people regain function in terms of movement. Physiotherapy is basically a rehab that concentrates on your muscles and joints as elements of the whole body,” she says.
“Occupational Therapy, on the other hand, picks up rehab a bit later in the process. We are saying, ‘okay, we've gotten to the point that you can walk again, for example. But when you are back home, how are you going to shower, cook or enjoy your hobbies, now that you have got this new impairment?’” says Mignon. “An OT will help you get back to doing what you want to do.”
Occupational therapy placement experiences
Placements are an important part of studying the Bachelor of Occupational Therapy (Honours). “JCU organises placements so that you're working in the field for almost six months. You have two seven-week placements and one ten-week placement. In that time, you're almost working as an independent therapist, depending on the practice area,” she says.
Before JCU OT students go on placements in their third and fourth year of study, they can submit a preference list of specialisations they are interested in. Mignon requested a placement in the hand therapy clinic at the Cairns Hospital.
“I felt like I learned the most when my supervisor wasn't actually at the table. She was in the same room, and she made sure that the patient was someone that I had the capacity to treat. I learned so much in those moments, and I gained much more confidence. Going on these placements was a major boost for me,” she says.
During another placement in the older persons ward (OPERA) at Cairns Hospital, Mignon says she loved the degree of freedom that her supervisor gave her. “I was doing my rounds every morning, and I would retrain people to use a shower, for example. I was able to do that by myself, and then report back to my supervisor at lunchtime or in the afternoon.”
Finding a job after a successful placement experience
After gaining the experience she needed at three different placement sites, Mignon found it easy to find a job right after graduation. She also didn’t feel overwhelmed when she started work at Cairns Occupational Therapy as a graduate fresh out of uni. “When I first applied, they said the last thing they ever wanted was their co-workers feeling overwhelmed or stressed,” Mignon says.
“During my first few weeks of working there, we co-treated because hand therapy can be quite complicated. My employer wanted to make sure that I'm confident enough to make the best recommendations. They also wanted to be sure that I was able to deliver a service they were happy with.”
Mignon says that after a few months on the job, she was able to work without direct supervision. “At this point, I'm only getting coached when it's a really complex case. This is when we bounce ideas off each other. I am really happy to be able to work in such a supportive environment and then be as independent as possible as well.”
Continuing professional development activities are ongoing and will be lifelong. “There are always new skills to develop and areas of practice to up-skill in,” Mignon says.
Job prospects for future occupational therapists
Mignon sees a bright future for upcoming occupational therapists. “As an OT you don't struggle to find work. Of course, it might be a bit harder to get into the hospital system, because what determines the number of jobs is the funding they have available,” Mignon says.
“But there are many possibilities to find work in private practice or in community organisations. Your therapy can also be funded by insurers, for example, such as in cases where people had car accidents or injuries at work and the insurance pays for their rehab,” Mignon says. “There is so much work that has to be done in this field. Many OTs also get paid by the NDIS or the aged care sector to work with people who might need to have therapy or perhaps have a one-off functional assessment.”
In the end, Mignon says, working as an occupational therapist is exactly what she was looking for: she can work in the medical sector and can really help people make a difference. She also doesn’t have to give up her nights and weekends, which is a great plus in terms of work-life balance, and something she has always been looking for.