How does an Occupational Therapist use assisted devices to do their job? How can we help our patients get access to this equipment? Hear from one of our therapists, Claire Uke, who utilizes a 3D printer to help her patients. Learn how technology usage is altering the field of Occupational Therapy.

The Role of an Occupational Therapist

Occupational therapy focuses on how clients perform activities and roles that are most important to their daily lives. OTs use therapeutic techniques to treat injuries, illnesses, or disabilities that affect patients’ ability to complete everyday activities. The goal of occupational therapy is to empower a patient with the ability to have agency over their own life. By helping a patient learn or relearn how to perform the tasks associated with living, therapists restore patient’s independence and otherwise enhance their quality of life. OTs work to treat patients from head to toe.

Exactly what this looks like will vary according to the goals of the patient and the specialty of the occupational therapist. For example, an occupational therapist might help a patient with everyday things like:

  • Self-care and fine motor skills – getting dressed, eating, moving around the house
  • Being productive – going to work or school, participating in the community
  • Leisure activities – sports, gardening, social activities.

As a mobile therapy company, our occupational therapists generally work with older adults in their home. Our therapists work on such things as fall prevention, maximizing independence with activities of daily living, ensuring safety, and enabling their patients to stay in their home for as long as desired. Safety is a priority!

Assisted Technologies (AT)

For many patients, independence in a particular situation (transferring, feeding, toileting, etc.) can only be improved through the use of an assistive device. Assistive technology is the use of adaptive tools, equipment, and systems to help people with disabilities live their lives fully at home.

Some examples of assistive technologies:

  • Mobility aids, such as wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, canes, crutches, prosthetic devices, and orthotic devices.
  • Hearing aids to help people hear or hear more clearly.
  • Cognitive aids, including computer or electrical assistive devices, to help people with memory, attention, or other challenges in their thinking skills.
  • Tools such as automatic page turners, book holders, and adapted pencil grips to help learners with disabilities participate in educational activities
  • Physical modifications, including ramps, grab bars, and wider doorways to enable access to buildings, businesses, and workplaces.
  • Adaptive switches and utensils to allow those with limited motor skills to eat, play games, and accomplish other activities.

*National Institutes of Health

While assisted devices are extremely helpful, therapists face challenging problems related to access, use, and the potential abandonment of these technologies. Four factors were significantly related to abandonment–lack of consideration of user opinion in selection, ease of device procurement, poor device performance, and change in user priorities. This suggests the need to emphasize consumer involvement to reduce device abandonment and enhance consumer satisfaction. (Predictors of Assistive Technology Abandonment, Phillips & Zhao, 1993)

“As OTs we want to prevent technology abandonment

with as much collaboration and

customization as possible – Claire Uke”

Mobile PT’s Claire Uke has her master’s degree in Occupational Therapy and is also certified in assistive technologies. According to Claire, many patients do not have access to technology for various reasons and there is a lack of government assistance in getting them what they need. Along with access issues, therapists often need to modify, refine, or repurpose existing off-the-shelf equipment to better meet their clients’ specific needs. This practice typically involves hacking and makeshift methods using practical and often improvised materials at hand, like duct tape and Velcro, that lack durability and attractiveness for long-term use. Claire solves many of these problems with her 3D printer!

 Digital fabrication and rapid prototyping technologies,

such as 3D printing, have the potential to empower

and support OTs in designing durable, esthetic,

and highly customized AT solutions (Buehler et al., 2014)

 What is 3D Printing:

3D printing (which started development back to the 80s) is the construction of a three-dimensional object from an image designed on a computer. It can be done in a variety of processes in which material is deposited, joined, or solidified under computer control, with material being added together (such as plastics, liquids or powder grains being fused), typically layer by layer. One of the materials Claire uses is derived from tapioca or cornstarch, making it recyclable and biodegradable under certain conditions. Printers can range from $200 DIY printers to $10,000+ industrial or business printers.

3D printing technology bridges the gap by providing what a patient requires and being able to customize. It is also cost effective and can be produced very quickly. There is of course a high learning curve with 3D printing, and we are lucky to have staff with the skill set to take advantage of this!

In Claire’s experience, 3D printing is still an up-and-coming skill in the OT world and applications in clinical areas are still emerging. There are a number of OTs already using 3D printers to supplement their practice, but there are a few hurdles to contend with. One hurdle is learning how to accurately design items themselves. Getting an engineer involved has benefits, but also drawbacks, since collaboration will take time and we want to get these items to our clients quickly. Operating and maintaining a 3D printer is another hurdle. Being able to operate and repair one will require some technical skills. Surprisingly, 3D printer technicians are hard to come by!

Success Story:

How has Claire used 3D printing to help a patient? Claire had a client who had difficulty accessing her patio. She was a wheelchair user and had very limited shoulder and hip mobility. She accidentally locked herself outside a few times because the patio door closed with the wind. Because accessing her patio was so important to her, and added to her quality of life, Claire needed to design a doorstop that she could use from the wheelchair. Claire created a corner doorstop that would fit into the doorjamb and would stay put when she wheeled herself out onto the patio. It took three trials until they had one that met her needs, and she was finally able to access her patio safely.

Looking to the Future:

Claire can see 3D printing becoming more accessible with a growing number of user-friendly and affordable printers on the market. Filament is also getting better, with more bio-compatible filaments being engineered. Improved 3D scanning enables customized items to become more refined. She hopes to see 3D printing grow since it gives OTs the freedom to create, trial, and customize adaptive equipment for our clients.

While there is no doubt that technology helps us care for our patients in many ways; personal connection, supportive care and hands-on therapy are at the core of how we treat our patients. But you can be sure, we will also use all the help we can get from new and existing technologies.

Keep on your feet!


Dan Sheehy is a Physical Therapist and the owner of Mobile PT, based in San Diego’s North County. Mobile PT strives to keep seniors strong and secure, decreasing fear and risk of falling. Our mission is to keep seniors confident and safe where they live to maximize their quality of life and maintain their independence.

Deep Dive: In emerging fields such as artificial intelligence, sensor technology, robotics, additive manufacturing and new materials., there is enormous potential for new AT solutions that capitalize on emerging technological advances.  (Sarah Abdi, Irene Kitsara, Mark S. Hawley & L. P. de Witte 2021). Want more info? Check out the below article on emerging technologies and their potential for this field.