Interview with Occupational Therapist Mapitso Thaisi

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how to become an occupational therapist in South Africa
Mapitso Thaisi OT and MPhil Student 

Tell Us A Bit About Yourself

My name is Mapitso Thaisi, I am from Welkom in the Free State, so you can guess that I am Sotho. I am the eldest of three children at home and I hope to be a role model to my siblings and other younger people within South Africa.  I studied a BSc in Occupational Therapy (OT) at the University of Cape (UCT). This is a four year degree, which one can apply for at any University in South Africa or abroad that has a medical faculty. After I graduated in 2014, I went back home to do one year of Community Service (2015), at a District Hospital in Odendaalsrus.  I then decided to come back to UCT last year (2016) to pursue a Masters of Philosophy (MPhil) in Human Rights Law.

What Made You Choose to Study OT?

Growing up, I was passionate about helping people and I knew that the medical field was where I wanted to be. However, I was not interested in medicine or physical therapy or psychology. But I wanted something that could give me the best of everything. I remember picking up a University of Pretoria prospectus in my matric year (2010) and reading about OT. I instantly fell in love. It said “Occupational Therapy is a science that draws from the medical, social and mental fields to help people to regain their optimal function. Occupational therapists work in a multi disciplinary team with doctors, physiotherapists, social workers, psychologists and speech, hearing and language practitioners and other members of the medical team, to help a person to regain their functional ability”.  I then thought to myself, that this was the perfect career for me. I appreciate how OT thinks of a human being from a functional perspective and by having an understanding of the goodness of fit between the person, the environment and what gives the person meaning in life, by doing what they do everyday.

 What Were The Main Challenges of Studying OT & How Did You Overcome Them?

I mainly enjoyed the theoretical aspect of OT, it was the practical aspects that were most challenging. Coming from an environment where I had never seen or known about OT and its concepts, until I started studying it, was challenging. But it helped to read the course materials, attend every lecture, every tutorial and having study groups where I could gain a better understanding and learn from others.  
The theory that we learnt was not always going to be practical in settings in which we practiced and our lectures made us very aware of this early on. OT concepts that we learnt in class were not always the best fit for our patients, given the complexity of the South African context. The onus was, therefore, on us as agents of change to find that perfect fit for our patients or clients. Which is why it was important to constantly think about the person and their environment i.e where they are from, where they work, or go to school and not just their medical or mental diagnosis. Some facilities were under resourced and we had to make our own plans for treatment areas. I also needed to be an advocate of change at times, by familiarizing myself with the policies, legislation and laws that govern a particular practice, area or context in order to frame my interventions. This helped me to think holistically about people, which was of course a challenge, however, I learnt how to be relative to individual and community needs. Research and collaborating with different stakeholders is a crucial aspect of the OT process. For example, if you could name all the principles of rehabilitating a child with a learning disability, but discarded his background, the family’s socio-economic status and the resources available for that child at home and in your sessions in the clinic or hospital, your sessions had no value and you would not meet your goals.

What Happens When You Graduate?

You celebrate! To be honest, in point no. 3 I just mentioned the basic challenges, the journey to graduation in OT is embedded within many challenges. Among these are the challenges of your own journey to self actualization i.e to grow yourself in the process as well.

However, in your final year, by June/July we are given different options of public health facilities which we need to choose from. This is a stressful process for most people because you never know where you will end up. This list is rolled up nationally, so you compete for placements with EVERY OT student in their final year that year! It is the same for all other health sciences students. Other people get second rounded, or even third rounded. But my advice is to not become disappointed when you do not get your desired placement, but rather view it as a learning opportunity.  

Once you have qualified, you have to register with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) as a Community Service Occupational Therapist. You get issued a certificate with your new title. This certificate, together with your qualification certificate (provided by the university) allows you to practice in any public health facility in the country (the one you got chosen for).

After completing Community Service, you have to fill in HPCSA’s Form 27 to register for your Independent Practitioner Certificate. Your health facility manager or supervisor and the CEO have to sign this form. Make sure to do it before they go one their December leave! After this you are free to work anywhere in South Africa and abroad! You may also choose to open your own practice, the sky is the limit.

What Are The Types of Career Options Available For OT's After Completing Community Service?

You can choose to apply for a Senior Occupational Therapist role at any hospital in private or public health care facilities. You can choose to work for a psychiatric hospital or mental health clinic. You can work at the mine hospitals or their functional assessment units. You may also apply to work at a school for learners with special needs or disabilities. Old age homes are other places where OTs work, as well as NGOs in communities.  You could look for opportunities at the universities as well, to become an on-site supervisor for OT students, or a lecturer. Or, you can work for an insurance company or practice in the Medico-legal field.

What Is Your Advice to Anyone In High school or at Home Thinking of A Career In Occupational Therapy or Health Sciences in General?

My advice to anyone who wants to pursue a career in health science or OT, is that you must do your research. Phone the faculties if you find that you cannot understand what the prospectus says. I shadowed an OT in matric before I applied for my studies and this gave me an idea of whether or not I would like this career. Speak to your teachers, go onto the internet and search for your career. Or you can contact me for any career advice and see if we can talk through the process of what it is that you would like to do and the channels you can follow to do that.

If you have any questions for Mapitso you can contact her through her blog, if you are interested in fashion, travel and would like to learn a little more about Cape Town also like her facebook page and subscribe to her blog.

Subscribe to Sa Varsity Student by email or by following us on our Facebook page, our next interview which will be just as interesting and informative (but in a different field) will be live in 3 days time!

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