The American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) is a nationally-recognized organization that is working to advance the field of occupational therapy. The AOTA advocates for more than 230,000 occupational therapists (OTs), occupational therapy assistants (OTAs), and occupational therapy students in the United States—and beyond. In part with their efforts, the AOTA maintains the Occupational Therapy Code of Ethics, an official document meant to inform the practice, research, and education of both current and aspiring occupational therapy professionals.
Like any healthcare professional, occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants must demonstrate ethical conduct in their practice. These professionals work with a diversity of patients, families, caregivers, colleagues, administrators, and other medical professionals—and ethics play an important role in how they interact with others and make decisions in their work. The AOTA Occupational Therapy Code of Ethics is designed to help occupational therapy professionals when facing complex, ethical problems in the workplace. This Code of Ethics is also used as a guideline to standardize the core values of occupational therapy, and ensure all OTs and OTAs practice in an ethical manner.
What is the Purpose of the Occupational Therapy Code of Ethics?
According to the AOTA, there are two, primary purposes of the Occupational Therapy Code of Ethics.
The first is to provide aspirational Core Values to all occupational therapy professionals. These Core Values are meant to guide professionals toward making ethical decisions and courses of action while in the workplace.
The second goal of the Occupational Therapy Code of Ethics is to define the ethical principles of occupational therapy, and to create standardized codes of conduct that can be enforced throughout the field. In other words, all occupational therapists and OTAs must follow these ethical standards in order to maintain a successful career.
As the AOTA states, “Recognizing and resolving ethical issues is a systematic process that includes analyzing the complex dynamics of situations, applying moral theories and weighing alternatives, making reasoned decisions, taking action, and reflecting on outcomes. Occupational therapy personnel are expected to abide by the Principles and Standards of Conduct within this Code.”
The Occupational Therapy Code of Conduct was last updated by the AOTA in 2020. Summaries from these latest guidelines are detailed below. If you are looking to break into the field, and seeking a better understanding of how ethics play a role, consider this your guide.
What are the Core Values of Occupational Therapy?
There are seven Core Values that ground the field of occupational therapy. These are listed in the AOTA Occupational Therapy Code of Ethics, last updated in 2020, with the goal of helping inspire professionals to make ethical decisions. The seven Core Values of occupational therapy include:
Altruism is synonymous with selflessness. It means demonstrating unselfish, thoughtful concern for the well-being of others. Occupational therapy assistants and occupational therapists must reflect altruism in their actions and attitudes by being caring, dedicated, responsive, and understanding.
Equality means that all people, regardless of their background, have fundamental human rights—and, in turn, the right to the same opportunities. Occupational therapists and OTAs must support equality in their work by demonstrating fairness and treating all patients without bias. This requires practitioners to evaluate their own biases and learn how to respect others, even when their beliefs, values, or lifestyles may differ. Equality must be demonstrated in interactions with patients, families, as well as colleagues.
Patients have the freedom to exercise autonomy and self-direction, and occupational therapy professionals must honor this. Specifically, OTs and OTAs should always value a patient’s desire to guide treatment interventions, and pursue goals that have personal or social meaning for them.
Occupational therapy professionals work with all patient demographics, and therefore must maintain an objective, nonbiased relationship with their patients. They must respect all patient populations, and provide fair, just treatment regardless of status or certain attributes. OTs and OTAs may also prioritize social justice, by addressing unjust issues or inequities in the healthcare system.
Dignity has a lot to do with the respect and pride of people. In the field of occupational therapy, this Core Value means respecting each person’s life experiences and backgrounds, preserving and promoting the uniqueness of each person, as well as acting with humility and sensitivity when working with others.
Truthfulness requires being accountable, honest, accurate, and authentic in the work you do. OTs and OTAs have an obligation to be truthful with themselves, their colleagues, their patients, and society as a whole. This pertains to all types of communication, whether verbal or written.
Prudence is synonymous with judgment, underlining one’s ability to govern and discipline themselves through the use of reason. Occupational therapists and OTAs must act with prudence—in other words, with discretion, moderation, care, and judiciousness. They must be able to make judgements soundly and respond on the basis of intelligence, evidence, and rational thought.
What are the Defining Principles of the Occupational Therapy Code of Ethics?
The AOTA delineates a set of principles for occupational therapists and OTAs, to ensure that all act in an ethical manner. The principles are also designed to inspire clinicians to make ethical decisions. These include:
Another word for kindness, beneficence simply means that occupational therapy personnel should demonstrate a concern for the well-being and safety of their patients and teammates. It means acting in the benefit of other individuals, promoting good and preventing harm in the workplace.
Similarly, nonmaleficence simply implies that occupational therapy professionals should always refrain from any actions that will cause harm. Specifically, they must avoid causing any harm, injury, or wrongdoing to their patients.
Every person has the right to privacy, confidentiality, and consent—especially in the healthcare field. All occupational therapy professionals must respect a person’s right to this level of autonomy, treat patients in accordance with their wishes, and protect their confidential information.
Given the diverse patient populations with which OTAs will work, enacting justice is a key principle. This means that occupational therapy must advocate for equity, inclusion, and objectivity, and deliver fair treatment to patients regardless of their age, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, socioeconomic status, or any other attributes.
Truth matters in occupational therapy, and this is exactly what veracity implies. Occupational therapy personnel should always aim to provide accurate, objective, and comprehensive information in their work. They should never be deceptive, but rather, always honest in helping to foster an understanding of information in others.
Occupational therapy professionals must be reliable and committed, as they are handling the health and well-being of others. Therefore, they should act with fidelity, treating all patients and colleagues with respect, fairness, discretion, and integrity.
What are the Standards of Conduct for OTAs?
On top of the ethical values and principles listed above, the AOTA Occupational Therapy Code of Ethics also provides standards of conduct for occupational therapy personnel. These touch on seven key areas:
1. Professional Integrity, Responsibility, and Accountability
In their profession, occupational therapists and OTAs must maintain awareness and comply with AOTA policies and Official Documents, current laws and regulations relating to occupational therapy, and any organizational policies enacted by their employer.
2. Therapeutic Relationships
Occupational therapy professionals develop therapeutic relationships with their patients, and must always practice in the best interest of their patients’ well-being. These relationships must be developed with respect, without bias, in a professional, positive manner. The code of conduct, cited in the AOTA 2020 Code of Ethics, also touches on how to handle conflicts with patients or situations where there is lacking professional boundaries (such as a family member).
3. Documentation, Reimbursement, and Financial Matters
Patient record keeping is an essential part of any healthcare role, and occupational therapy is no exception. Whether an OT or OTA, all professionals must maintain complete, accurate, and timely records of all patient encounters.
4. Service Delivery
In delivering patient services, occupational therapists and OTAs must strive to deliver the highest-quality care. This care should be client-centered, safe, interactive, evidence-based, occupation-based, and sensitive to the patient’s needs. It should also be consistent with occupational therapy’s values and philosophies, including the Core Values and Principles listed above.
5. Professional Competence, Education, Supervision, and Training
All occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants must be licensed in the United States. The Code of Ethics also states that these professionals must maintain their credentials, degrees, licenses, and other certifications to “to develop and maintain competent, evidence-based practice.”
Communication is key in any healthcare role. For OTAs and OTs, communication must be a developed skill, with written, verbal, electronic, and virtual communication meeting high standards. Communication also involves ensuring confidentiality, informed consent, autonomy, accuracy, timeliness, and good record management.
7. Professional Civility
The last standard of conduct listed in the Occupational Therapy Code of Conduct is civility, or the ability to honor one’s personal values while also listening to different points of view from others. Occupational therapy professionals must act with humility, cultural sensitivity, and conduct themselves civilly during all interactions with patients and personnel.
The AOTA Occupational Therapy Code of Ethics is meant to guide current and future generations of OT and OTA professionals. While the Core Values, principles, and standards of conduct are clearly outlined, it is important to remember that a lot of these ethics are already engrained in many of us. The Code of Ethics is designed to guide and define ethical decision making in occupational therapy; however, those with a moral character and mindful reflection may already feel equipped to pursue this path.
Occupational therapists and OTAs have the incredible opportunity to influence the lives of others, and help patients live to their fullest potential. Working in the benefit of others is at the core of occupational therapy, and the Code of Ethics, too.
Are you considering becoming an occupational therapy assistant? The first step is to complete a training program, so that you can qualify for licensure. Learn about Goodwin University’s recognized occupational therapy assistant school here.