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The Ethics of Occupational Therapy: The Thinking Therapist

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The purpose of healthcare services is to prevent, cure or lessen the impact of disease and injury in order to make people healthier. In clinical terms, a positive outcome is that the patient has better health following intervention than when he entered the service. Healthcare services are provided because governments and individuals think that health is a good thing; it has ethical value (Thompson, 1990). The moral philosopher, David Seedhouse (1988:3), claimed that “the notions of health and human value are inseparable.”

There may be general agreement that health is a good thing but it is more difficult to define what health is (McDowell & Newell, 1996). This complex and abstract concept can be understood in a number of different ways. The World Health Organization (WHO, 1946:2) defined health as an ideal state, which we might think is unlikely to be achieved in the real world: “complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” In contrast, Seedhouse (1986) offered a pragmatic definition of health as the foundations for achievement:

A person's optimum state of health is equivalent to the state of the set of conditions which fulfil or enable a person to work to fulfil his or her realistic chosen and biological potentials. (Seedhouse, 1986:61)

Within the multidisciplinary healthcare team, staff from diverse professional backgrounds have varying understandings of what it is to be healthy. This means that the goal of achieving health may be expressed in a different way by each practitioner. Occupational therapists, for example, claim that their specialised contribution to health and social care comes from their focus on occupation, therefore

the unique goal of occupational therapy is to help people with performance deficits of any kind make and express meaning through occupation, or intentional, organized performance (Watson & Fourie, 2004:26).

This chapter begins with a description of the purpose and practice of occupational therapy, including the ethical standards expected of an occupational therapist. Three aspects of occupational therapy skills are identified: practical skills, skills in applying knowledge, and thinking skills, each of which has an ethical dimension. These aspects of practice are illustrated with examples from my own career. The final section of the chapter summarises the nature of ethical occupational therapy and offers two examples from occupational therapy practice.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 January 2012

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