Occupational therapy and primary care*
, Tiska Ikking
, Rosa Baaijen
and Stephanie Saenger
Occupational Therapist, Cordaan –Primary Care Team, Amsterdam, The Netherlands,
Therapist, Evean - Primary Care Team, Wormerveer, The Netherlands,
Vermoeidheid&PijnCentrum - Lelystad, The Netherlands and
Occupational Therapist, Rolmaat - Abcoude, The
Netherlands and COTEC presidentlll
This article is the first in a series of two articles about Occupational Therapy and Primary
Care. This first article describes the health policy context in which primary health care should
be strengthened. A definition of occupational therapy is given and the scope of the profession
is explained. Based on a survey amongst the (experts of) member associations of COTEC, an
overview is given of the main target groups and how occupational therapy is embedded and
organized in different countries. In a position statement it is argued why occupational therapy
can and should contribute to a comprehensive integrated primary care and challenges to
strengthen the position of the profession are described.
Purpose of the article
The purpose of this article is to outline the role of occupational therapy within primary care.
This article informs consumers, academics, health service managers, professional associations
and government bodies about occupational therapy in primary care, and informs service and
policy development at a local, national and European level.
Introduction: occupational therapy profession and primary care
Across Europe there are great differences in the availability of occupational therapy in
The need for integrated care that enables people to participate in decision-making and to
self-manage their own health and well-being is widely recognized.
The challenges facing health care services include ageing populations and increasing
numbers of clients with long-term conditions and multi-morbidities and all the social and
economic consequences. These populations will benefit from an approach that is focused on
possibilities and functioning rather than on a more medical treatment of symptoms (De
Maeseneer and Boeckxstaens, 2012).
Occupational therapists can deliver an important contribution to the primary care work-
force (Donnelly et al., 2014). A ‘clear fit’has been identified between the holistic, health-
promoting nature of occupational therapy and primary care (Donnelly et al., 2013). Occu-
pational therapists recognize the importance of meaningful occupations in promoting mental,
physical and social well-being. They are skilled in assessing the impact of developmental,
physical and mental health conditions on a person’s ability to participate in activities that are
important to them, and in devising intervention plans that facilitate occupational engagement
(College of Occupational Therapists Ltd, 2015a).
Occupational therapists work in partnerships with other professions and can reduce the
pressure on GP services. For example, in prevention and early intervention to prevent diseases
or disability, reduce the impact of an illness and help support individuals in maintaining their
healthy lifestyles (College of Occupational Therapists Ltd, 2015b). Within primary and early
intervention services, occupational therapy interventions will reduce the risk of admission and
re-admission into hospitals and other institutes from incidents such as falls (College of
Occupational Therapists Ltd, 2016).
According to Occupational Therapy Europe (OT-EU):
‘Occupational therapy is a profession concerned with improving well-being for persons of all ages through
enabling occupations to promote health and participation in society. Occupational therapists do this by
supporting persons’engagement in occupations and activities that they want, need and choose to do in
everyday life. Occupational therapists explore new ways of doing things by adapting activities and physical
and social environments to improve function, capacity and participation. Occupational therapists work in
Primary Health Care
Research & Development
*Written on behalf of COTEC by:
Marije Bolt, Tiska Ikking, Rosa Baaijen,
Cite this article: Bolt M, Ikking T, Baaijen R,
Saenger S. (2019) Occupational therapy and
primary care. Primary Health Care Research &
Development 20(e27): 1–6. doi: 10.1017/
Received: 27 July 2017
Revised: 2 April 2018
Accepted: 14 June 2018
evidence-based practices; home based
therapy; interventions; occupational therapy;
Author for correspondence:
Marije Bolt, Occupational Therapist, Cordaan –
Primary Care Team, Amsterdam, The
Netherlands, E-mail: email@example.com
© The Author(s) 2019. This is an Open Access
article, distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution licence (http://
permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
partnership with those involved in the persons’life, for example, family
and carers, teachers and employers, to achieve persons’and communities’
desired outcomes and promote an inclusive society’. (OT-EU Occupa-
tional Therapy Europe, n.d.)
For occupational therapy in primary care it should be added
that occupational therapists work in the clients’own environment
where the activities take place at home, school work and/or social
Health policy context
In many countries, there is a shift from more institutional care to
community care, both in mental and physical health care. The
way health care is organized is not sustainable from both a
financial and workforce point of view. In all countries in Europe,
governments are struggling to reorganize the health systems and
the workforce to meet the future needs. Although all health care
systems aim to improve their population’s health, countries
appear to organize their health care systems differently in
response to their own political, economic, social, demographical
and cultural context (Ros et al., 2000). In Western Europe
emphasis on primary care is expected to be an answer to ques-
tions of rising costs and changing demand. Central and Eastern
European countries are each in their own way struggling to
fundamentally improve the performance of their entire health
systems following their restoration of independence. Primary
care, which used to be poorly developed in these countries, is now
being developed to bring adequate and responsive health services
closer to the population. Approaches and models of primary care
reforms introduced have varied widely from country to country.
Some countries have attempted systemic interventions combining
legal, structural, organizational and financing reforms. Most
countries however, touch on one or more aspects of primary care
such as changes in the provision of services delivery by intro-
ducing evidence-based protocols; improving the generalist
approach of primary care by improving the academic embedd-
edness of general practice; or introducing financial incentives for
patients or providers to stimulate long-term relationships between
single providers and patients (Kringos, 2012).
Primary care is at the top of the agenda of World Health Orga-
nization (WHO) and the European Commission. ‘It is undeniable
that strong primary health care is foundational to achieving health
for all, as well as today’s leading global health movements including
Universal Health Coverage, Health System Strengthening, Health
System Resilience, Integrated People-centred Health Services, and
health related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)’(World
Health Organization, 2016). The Resolution WHA62.12 urging
WHO member states to strengthen their health care systems
through the values and principles of primary care. The WHO
report 2008 articulates the need to bring responsive health services
closer to the population and to provide people-centered care
organized in primary care (World Health Organization, 2008).
In a recent report of the European Commission two of the five
key conclusions are: A strong primary care guides patients
through the health system and helps avoid wasteful spending and
integrated care tackles a labyrinth of scattered health services to
the benefit of the patient (European Union, 2017).
In the final consultation of the European Framework for Action
on Integrated Health Service Delivery (WHO regional office
for Europe) and Health 2020 it is stated that ‘Strengthening
people-centred health systems…requires reorienting health care
systems to give priority to disease prevention, foster continual
quality improvement and integrate service delivery, ensure con-
tinuity of care, support self-care patients and relocate care as close
to home as is safe and cost-effective’. Key elements in future health
service delivery are investing in health through a life course
approach and empowering people (World Health Organization,
2008). Strengthening the primary care level of health care systems
have increasingly been considered to be of great importance to
dealing with specific health care system challenges and improving
the overall performance of a health care system (Kringos, 2012).
Primary care is the first level of a health care system where people
present their health problems and where the majority of the
population’s curative and preventive health needs are satisfied
(Starfield, 1994). Strong primary care is assumed to contribute
positively to health system goals including (equity in) population
health, sustainable health care expenditures and responsiveness of
care (Kringos, 2012).
Not only the policymakers but also the patients in Europe are
striving for accessible (primary) health care: ‘Sustainability stra-
tegies should include reducing the burden on secondary care by
strengthening primary and community care, which is accountable
for 80% of seeking treatment. Strong primary care systems are
needed to provide continuous, comprehensive and coordinated
care for the whole population’(European Patient’s Forum, 2017).
An international comparative study to the strength of primary
care resulted in listing the European countries with strong,
medium and weak primary care (Kringos, 2012).
The performance on all primary care structure dimensions
(incl. primary care governance, economic conditions, workforce
development) and services delivery process dimensions (incl.
access, continuity, coordination, and comprehensiveness of pri-
mary care) were taken into consideration (Figure 1).
Primary care definitions
accessible, comprehensive care in an ambulatory setting to patients
in their own context on a continuous basis. Primary care coordinates
the care processes of patients across the health care system (Starfield,
1994). Primary care ideally provides accessible care to all patients
with any kind of health problems regardless of age, sex or any other
personal characteristic (World Health Organization on behalf of the
European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, 2006).
These characteristics are also mentioned in the definition of the
WHO regional office for Europe. Primary health care is ‘health care
received in the community, usually from family doctors, commu-
nity nurses, staff in local clinics or other health professionals. It
should be universally accessible to individuals and families by
means acceptable to them, with their full participation and at a cost
that the community and country can afford’(World Health
Primary care exhibits features of person-centeredness, compre-
hensiveness, integration, continuity of care, participation of patients,
families and communities. This requires health services that are
organized with close-to-client multidisciplinary teams responsible
for a defined population, collaborate with socials services and other
sectors, and coordinate the contributions of specialists and com-
munity organizations (World Health Organization, 2016).
In July 2014 The Expert Panel on Effective Ways of Investing in
Health (EXPH, 2014) adopted the Report on Definition of a frame
2 Marije Bolt et al.
of reference in relation to primary care with a special emphasis on
financing and referral systems. In this report, the EXPH publishes a
core definition of primary care in which occupational therapy is
mentioned as one of the professions active in primary care teams.
‘The Expert Panel considers that primary care is the provision of universally
accessible, integrated person-centred, comprehensive health and community
services provided by a team of professionals accountable for addressing a
large majority of personal health needs. These services are delivered in a
sustained partnership with patients and informal caregivers, in the context
of family and community, and play a central role in the overall coordi-
nation and continuity of people’s care.
The professionals active in primary care teams include, among others,
dentists, dieticians, general practitioner’s / family physicians, midwives,
nurses, occupational therapists, optometrists, pharmacists, physiotherapists,
psychologists and social workers’. (EXPH, 2014).
Occupational therapy and primary care
There are many differences in the European countries regarding the
definition and criteria of primary care. This is the same for occu-
pational therapy in primary care. For instance, in the UK primary
care is defined as being ‘the first contact’in health care. In the
Netherlands the way the occupational therapy services are financed
defines whether it is primary care. Other countries have the referral
system as criteria. Referral systems are often directly connected with
financing and are as such an important issue. Some countries have
the environment/context where the occupational therapist works as
criteria which can be home, school, workplace and or private
practice or are called ‘community based’. The WHO definition states
primary care services …should be universally accessible to indivi-
duals and families by means acceptable to them…which in fact
would exclude all care that has to be paid for by the person.
Occupational therapy services in primary care are not only
aimed at the individual in health care but also in groups and
communities and are delivered in public health and the social
area. Occupational therapy plays an important role in working
with those who have chronic conditions etc., but also in working
with the well. As the financing systems of the different areas –
health insurance, social insurance, municipality –are separately
organized and occupational therapy services are often delivered at
the borders and both sides of these areas, the financing is a major
challenge. As this article aims to give an overview of the state of
the art of occupational therapy in primary care in European
countries and to support those countries developing occupational
therapy in primary care, all possible contexts are taken into
account, even though in some countries they won’t meet all the
criteria set by the definitions above.
Statement of the position taken by COTEC (Saenger, 2016)
Occupational therapists critically embrace the definition of the
concept of Positive Health. ‘The ability to adapt and to self-
manage, in the face of social, physical and emotional challenges’
(Huber et al., 2011) and find that health as ‘a state of complete
physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the
absence of disease or infirmity’as defined by the WHO in 1948
(World Health Organization, 2006) seems not applicable in these
times with ageing populations and increasing numbers of patients
with long-term conditions and multi-morbidities.
Occupational therapists possess professional skills that enable
them to work with a wide range of clients of all ages who are faced
with limitations in their participation due to physical, mental and/
or social economic causes.
Occupational therapists recognize the importance of meaningful
occupations in promoting mental, physical and social well-being.
They are skilled in assessing the impact of developmental, physical
and mental health and social conditions on a person’s ability to
participate in activities that are important to them, and in devising
intervention plans that facilitate occupational engagement.
Fig. 1. Countries with strong, medium and weak primary care, considering PC structure and key aspects of PC services delivery
Primary Health Care Research & Development 3
Although occupational therapists have the medical knowledge,
their focus is on functioning and participation. They operate in
both health and social systems. Occupational therapists have
distinct knowledge of the significant impact that daily habits and
routines have on individuals’health and well-being. They are
experts when it comes to finding –in partnership with their
clients –solutions for situations in which there is a gap between
the clients physical and/or mental abilities and the skills that are
necessary to perform daily activities. Occupational therapists
support people to live safely at home, prevent unnecessary hos-
pital or other institutional admissions and prevent an excess of
care-use at home.
Because occupational therapists address the entire area of daily
living, they are used to work with every other professional in both
health- and social care and also with professionals in the more
technical fields, such as architects, ICT, product developers and
designers. This makes occupational therapists fully equipped to
play a central role in interprofessional teams in primary care and
Occupational therapy services should be available and acces-
sible in primary care in all health- and social care systems across
Europe. Having an occupational therapist in a multi-professional
team could be helpful in identifying ways to integrate the health
and social services to better effect. Looking for solutions that
address the impact of illness or disability and how individuals
participate in society is the key to robust integrated health care
To make a start with the investigation to what extent members of
COTEC differ in the strength of occupational therapy in primary
care, the project group sent out surveys to all 30 members of
In total, 20 surveys were returned, two from the same
country. Since each country in Europe is in a different stage of
development of their primary care information infrastructure,
inevitably, some countries have a more comprehensive, up-to-
date or reliable set of data than other countries. These surveys
were ordered and analyzed by eight themes: total number of
occupational therapists in private practice, summary of the pro-
fession, organized interest group within National Association,
payment system, accessibility, client groups, main working area
and main challenges. The project group expected that countries
vary in the strength of occupational therapy in primary care,
which can be explained by variation in their political-economical,
cultural and health care system contexts. Strong primary care is
expected to be beneficial to important health care system out-
comes (Kringos, 2012). Currently, countries with relatively strong
PC have higher total health care expenditures than countries with
relatively weak PC in Europe. The results confirm that strong PC
has a positive impact on population health, reducing disparity in
health, and avoiding unnecessary hospitalizations. Patient per-
ceived quality of care is not related to the strength of PC (Kringos,
Number of occupational therapists
In total, 11 member associations of COTEC have returned the
survey with a positive answer on the question whether they have
occupational therapists working in primary care. Their number
varies between 6 (Luxembourg) and 1400 (Norway).
Out of the 30 member associations of COTEC, 26 completed the
2016 summary of the profession on the topic of ‘occupational
therapists working in private/independent practice’(COTEC Execu-
tive Committee, 2017). 23 member associations of COTEC have
occupational therapists working in private/independent practice and
their number varies between 3 (Iceland) and 26 000 (Germany).
We choose to compare the primary care and private/inde-
pendent practice data in Table 1.
Some differences in numbers are remarkable. That might be
due to differences in interpretation of primary care and private/
independent practice and/or the position and level of knowledge
of the person who answered the questions.
Special interest groups
As a special interest group is often started when a country wants
to develop or has developed a special area of practice, in this case
primary care, this item was included in the survey.
There are four interest/expert groups about occupational therapy
in primary care identified according to the returned surveys. Both
the countries with the largest and smallest number therapists
working in private practices have established such a group.
Funding of services
Out of 18 answers (with several payments systems existing next to
each other), the most common payment system is health insur-
ance, followed by clients paying for themselves, payment systems
of the municipality and other (government, general taxation,
public system and private providers) (Table 2).
Out of 14 countries, 11 offer the possibility for occupational
therapy through direct access, two of them as being the only
option to start occupational therapy treatment. Two other
member associations outlined the fact that no referral or direct
access check is needed when clients pay for the occupational
therapy treatment themselves.
Main working area
The main group of clients being treated by occupational thera-
pists in primary care is the elderly. Three countries do not offer
occupational therapy in primary care for this group at all. They do
offer specific occupational therapy in primary care for adults
(with mental disabilities) and children.
There is no single source of information that provides basic
information on the organization and delivery of primary care
services across Europe. A major cause is the lack of a common
definition of primary care that can capture the variation in orga-
nization and services delivery models (Kringos, 2012). The lack of
comparable information on primary care across Europe, limits
opportunities to provide benchmark information on the func-
tioning of primary care to policymakers (eg, to measure the impact
of healthcare policies on primary care), identify strong features or
options to improve the functioning of primary care, and explain
variation in the strength of primary care between countries
(Kringos, 2012). The same applies for occupational therapy.
The survey is available by mailing the author.
4 Marije Bolt et al.
The results of the survey show that a clear and well-accepted
definition of primary care is needed to be able to get the right data
of occupational therapists working in this area. Further and more
in depth research is needed to describe the financing systems of
occupational therapy services across Europe.
The main challenge for occupational therapy in primary care,
according to the analyses of the survey, is the difficult accessibility
to occupational therapy services caused by:
∙A lack of occupational therapists in primary care;
∙A lack of knowledge among the general public and the
medical professionals regarding the services of occupational
therapy in primary care;
Table 1. Number of occupational therapists working in primary care or
COTEC member Number of occupational
therapists working in
primary care according
to 2016 survey
Number of occupational
therapists working in
practice according to 2016
summary of the
Austria No answer (Na) 1200
Belgium 400 1057
Bulgaria Na 0
Croatia Na 20
Cyprus Na 43
Czech Republic Na 5
Denmark 400 821
Estonia Na Na
Finland Na 300
France 800 800
Georgia Na 0
Germany Na 26000
Greece Na Na
Iceland Na 3
Ireland 500 120
Italy Na 1300
Latvia Na 19
Lithuania Na Na
Luxembourg 6 6
Malta Na 8
The Netherlands 740 900
Norway 1400 12
Portugal 68 Na
Russia Na 0
Serbia Na 50
Slovenia Na 10
Spain 75 1560
Sweden Na 850
Switzerland 1200 850
United Kingdom 700 752
Table 2. Most common payment systems for occupational therapy in
COTEC member Health insurance Municipality Self Other
Austria X X
Belgium X X X X
Bulgaria No answer (Na)
Czech Republic X
France X X
Luxembourg X X
The Netherlands X X X
Slovenia X X
Spain X X X X
Switzerland X X
United Kingdom X X
Total 9 3 9 6
Primary Health Care Research & Development 5
∙A fragmentation of the organization of health care and social
∙The complexity of the financing structures;The other
challenge is the professional development and the limited
possibilities to build a robust knowledge base.
∙Most occupational therapist work solitary in primary care
without the possibility to be supported and learn from
∙If occupational therapists work in a multidisciplinary team,
they experience unrealistic caseloads and inadequate
resources due to a high number of referrals (Tinelly and
∙Scope of the profession;
▪for very specific OT tasks which limits the scope of the
▪or the scope is too broad which results in a lack of focus.
∙Cooperation between practice, education and research are not
∙Lack of research on (cost) effectiveness.
Strong primary care will not emerge spontaneously: it will require
continuous efforts to maintain, restore or strengthen its functions
to deliver high-quality primary care (Kringos, 2012).
Occupational therapy has a lot to offer in primary care espe-
cially if it is embedded in the local, regional and national health
and social systems.
Although occupational therapy is named as a key profession
in the core definition of Primary Care (EXPH, 2014) (new
reference has been added) and is (well) established in primary
care at least 14 European countries, occupational therapy is
according to Professor Jan de Maeseneer still ‘the most
underused profession in primary care’(De Maeseneer, 2017).
Reasons are the way primary health care is organized and
financed which hinders the accessibility of occupational ther-
apy in primary care, the relatively small number of occupa-
tional therapists and the unfamiliarity with the profession by
policymakers, referrers, other professionals and the general
To develop and strengthen the position of the profession in
primary care, promotion to policymakers and public is needed, as
is evidence of the (cost) effectiveness of the interventions.
This article and the second article describe and capture just a
phase of the development and state of the art of occupational
therapy and primary care. Seeing the developments in health and
social care and especially in primary care in Europe, and given the
efforts and results of COTEC and OT-EU and its members in
promoting the profession on European and national level, it is to
be expected occupational therapy will follow and will be devel-
oped, expand and established in more countries and in
Acknowledgments. The authors thank all who have in any way contributed
with data, research findings and evidence-based practices.
Additional literature concerning this topic can be requested by the authors.
College of Occupational Therapists Ltd (2015a) The contribution of
occupational therapy to GP services. London, UK: College of Occupational
College of Occupational Therapists Ltd (2015b) Urgent care: the value of
occupational therapy. London, UK: College of Occupational Therapists
College of Occupational Therapists Ltd (2016) Reducing the pressure on
hospitals: a report on the value of occupational therapy in Scotland. London,
UK: College of Occupational Therapists Limited.
COTEC Executive Committee (2017) Summary of the occupational therapy
profession in Europe. Karlsbad-Ittersbach, Germany: Council of Occupa-
tional Therapists for the European Countries.
De Maeseneer J (2017) Meeting European Parliamentary Interest Group on
Innovation on health and social care, Brussels, November 28th 2017 [quote].
De Maeseneer J and Boeckxstaens P (2012) James Mackenzie Lecture 2011:
multimorbidity, goal-oriented care, and equity. British Journal of General
Practice 62, 522–524.
Donnelly C, Brenchley C, Crawford C and Letts L (2013) The integration of
occupational therapy into primary care: a multiple case study design. BMC
Family Practice 14, 60.
Donnelly C, Brenchley C, Crawford C and Letts L (2014) The emerging role
of occupational therapy in primary care. Canadian Journal of Occupational
European Patient’s Forum (2017) Taking action –a roadmap to achieving
universal health coverage for all by 2030. Retrieved May 2016–June 2018 from
European Union (2017) The State of Health in the EU “Companion Report
2017”. ISBN: 978-92-79-73492-2 Retrieved May 2016–June 2018 from https://
EXPH (EXpert Panel on effective ways of investing in Health) (2014)
Definition of a frame of reference in relation to primary care with a special
emphasis on financing systems and referral systems. Brussels, Belgium:
European Commission Retrieved May 2016–June 2018 from https://ec.europa.
Huber M, Knottnerus J, Green L, Horst H, Jadad A, Kromhout D, Leonard
B, Lorig K, Loureiro M, Meer J, Schnabel P, Smith R, Weel C and Smid
H(2011) How should we define health? BMJ 343, D4163.
Kringos DS (2012) The strength of primary care in Europe. Utrecht, The
Netherlands: Utrecht University.
OT-EU Occupational Therapy Europe (n.d.) What is OT? –OT EU.
Retrieved May 2016–June 2018 from http://www.oteurope.eu/what-is-ot/.
Ros CC, Groenewegen PP and Delnoij DM (2000) All rights reserved, or can
we just copy? Cost sharing arrangements and characteristics of health care
systems. Health Policy 52,1–13.
Saenger S (2016) Occupational Therapy perspective on Integrated Care
(presentation). Retrieved May 2016–June 2018 from http://www.coteceurope.
Starfield B (1994) Is primary care essential? Lancet 344, 1129–1133.
Tinelly M and Byrne M (2016) Primary care occupational therapy: exploring
the perceptions of therapists’role and their current practice in Ireland. Irish
Journal of Occupational Therapy 44,23–31.
World Health Organization (2006) Constitution of the World Health
Organization. Basic documents. Supplement 2006. Copenhagen, Denmark:
World Health Organization.
World Health Organization (2008) The World Health report 2008. Primary
health care –now more than ever. Copenhagen, Denmark: World Health
World Health Organization (2016) Primary health care. Retrieved May
2016–June 2018 from http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/Health-
World Health Organization on behalf of the European Observatory on
Health Systems and Policies (2006) Primary care in the driver’s seat?. New
York, NY: Open University Press.
6 Marije Bolt et al.