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The Royal College of Occupational Therapists (RCOT) has revealed a huge increase in demand for occupational therapy-led rehabilitation services in the UK, as occupational therapists (OTs) struggle with long waiting lists.

This surge in “unsustainable” demand can be attributed to long COVID cases, where clients are living with more complex conditions and require rehabilitation services.

RCOT’s recent membership survey revealed an 82 percent increase in demand for OT-led rehabilitation services in the last six months alone.

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The findings raise questions about the prospects of providing timely rehabilitation, for people recovering from short- and long-term illnesses, and need urgent support to live independently carry out their daily lives.

Over 550 OTs working across the UK took part in the RCOT survey. More than three-quarters of respondents were working in NHS roles (community or acute service focused) with the remainder working with local authorities or in independent/private practice.

Of these, more than four in five are supporting people whose needs have become more complex due to delayed interventions arising from the pandemic.

71 percent of respondents believe there are not enough OTs to meet demand, and two-thirds reported difficulties in delivering rehabilitation services due to reduced access to facilities, suitable space and equipment.

Commenting on the survey, RCOT Director of Practice and Innovation Karin Orman said: “It’s clear from this survey that rehabilitation services across the UK are overloaded, with the vast majority of occupational therapists seeing a huge increase in demand and complexity of their caseload over the last six months alone.

“This simply isn’t sustainable and there isn’t a big enough workforce to currently meet demand.

“Across the UK, health and social care leaders need to invest more in rehabilitation services and drive the recruitment of more occupational therapists as a matter of urgency. Not in a few years but now.

“As leaders of rehabilitation services, occupational therapists are a vital part of the solution to getting through the backlog of people needing intervention. The maths is simple – the quicker people have access to rehabilitation services, the better their chances at getting back to doing the things they need and love to do.”

Around half of the survey participants are supporting people affected by long COVID.

Looking at the use of telecare or digital tools to support caseloads, 46 percent said they are using such technologies for intervention, while 49 percent are not. Just over one in 10 respondents are using telecare or digital technologies to manage most of their caseloads.

Some OTs feel that telecare is inappropriate to use for certain clients, particularly those with cognitive issues.

Layla Moran MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, added: “These new findings clearly show that the long-term impacts of the virus, including Long Covid, are exacerbating many of the challenges that occupational therapists are facing both in the NHS and beyond.

“Healthcare professionals are bearing the brunt of UK Government inaction and as long as Ministers bury their heads in the sand and refuse to address the growing Long Covid crisis, our economy and essential services will be under even greater strain. They must commit more money for research and funding, and recognise the condition as an occupational disease.”

Further findings from RCOT’s survey can be found here.

For OTs looking to find out more about how they can support children and adults with long COVID, RCOT has two guides available. OTs can use these guides to inform their practice when working with adults, children and young people with long covid. This includes OTs working in specialist long covid services, as well as in other acute, primary, secondary and community services.

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