Interview with Susan Cahill – AOTA Staff Member

Photo of Susan Cahill

- Woman with short gray hair wearing a dark green jacket smiling.

Recently, I had the chance to share an interview with Susan Cahill, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, Director of Evidence-Based Practice (EBP) with AOTA. I hope you enjoy this interview where I ask her questions about work, organization involvement, and FAOTA!

  1. What is your position with AOTA and what can you tell me about the role?

As the Director of Evidence-Based Practice, I work with member experts to develop AOTA systematic reviews, Practice Guidelines, and several other knowledge translation (KT) products. Some KT product examples include: HOT Evidence infographics, American Journal of Occupational Therapy (AJOT) Evidence Connection articles, OT Practice Evidence Perk articles, OT Practice Research Update articles, and Evidence-Informed Intervention Ideas. I also collaborate with AOTA policy, regulatory, and quality staff to advocate for OT services and other AOTA staff OT practitioners to develop practice-focused resources.

  1. How did you start getting involved with AOTA?

My first membership was role was as a proposal reviewer. I was encouraged by a colleague to review proposals for the annual AOTA conference about 17 years ago. I was excited to see that as a member, I had influence over what would be included at the annual conference. Through colleagues who held various AOTA member leadership roles, I became more aware of all the ways AOTA advocates for OT practitioners and services. It became quickly apparent that AOTA was working hard to benefit me as a practitioner, and I wanted to give back. I continued to review conference proposals and then began presenting at the national conference and submitting articles to OT Practice and the SIS Quarterlies. I joined several Communities of Practice and became more involved in the Special Interest Sections. I became the Editor of the Developmental Disabilities SIS Quarterly and was invited to the AOTA 2025 Visioning Summit to provide input on Vision 2025. I completed a systematic review for AOTA and then co-authored the Children and Youth 5-21 Practice Guidelines. More recently I served on the AOTA Commission on Practice and co-authored the 4th edition of the OT Practice Framework.

  1. What else can you tell me about your professional background?

I’ve been an occupational therapist for 25 years and my training was at the bachelor’s level. My first position was in a local community hospital and I had the chance to work in acute care, rehab and skilled nursing. At the time the hospital also contracted to several school districts, so I began to provide services in the public schools. I fell in love with school practice because I loved working in children’s natural environment and supporting them in the student role. I also loved working in an interprofessional team. I worked in schools for a number of years and also worked part-time (evenings and weekends) in an outpatient clinic and in early intervention. I went back to school for my master’s in educational administration and then worked as a special education program supervisor for a special education cooperative. After I had been working for about 7 years, I began teaching in OT academic programs and earned a PhD. I worked at UIC, Midwestern, and then eventually started the MSOT program at Lewis University. I began working at AOTA in 2020.

  1. What do you think it means for new occupational therapy practitioners to get involved
    in organizations like AOTA or their state organizations like ILOTA?

I think all OT practitioners should try to get involved with state and national organizations at some level. The first thing you can do is become and stay a member. Being a member of AOTA and state associations will help you stay current on best practices and continuously grow at each stage of your professional development. AOTA and state associations also advocate on behalf of the profession related to issues that affect everyday practice, such as billing and scope of practice. Being a member of AOTA is also how you stay up to date with current and best practices. Depending on the membership option chosen, AOTA members get access to evidence-based decision guides, the AJOT, OT Practice, the SIS Quarterlies and almost 200 online continuing education resources. They can join different Communities of Practice to network and learn with colleagues interested in working with specific populations or in different practice areas like Mealtime Occupations, Rural Therapy, Hospital-based Pediatrics, and Homelessness. Members also get important information about trends, like the most recent salary and workforce survey which can be particularly useful if you are thinking about working in a new practice setting or advocating at your current organization.

  1. What are your goals for AOTA?

AOTA knows that practitioners are busy and managing multiple demands. Not everyone has time to complete a literature search to answer a question about clinical practice. The goal for EBP at AOTA is to increase our efforts with KT so that we can reach more practitioners and provide easy-to-use resources to improve the quality of OT services. Knowledge translation is the process of moving what we learn from research to everyday practice. We’ve made great strides in KT recently. For example, the most recent AOTA Practice Guidelines (Low Vision; Children and Youth 0-5; Children and Youth 5-21) are now available through AJOT. This means that if you’re a member of AOTA, you don’t need to purchase a separate book to get the Practice Guidelines. Publishing these in AJOT also means that they are more discoverable by outside groups, like policymakers and providers of health insurance, and this helps to demonstrate that occupational therapy is a science-driven, evidence-based profession. The Practice Guidelines that will be published this spring and summer (Chronic Conditions and Parkinson’s Disease) also include algorithms or quick decision trees to facilitate practitioner decision making and more case studies to show the application of evidence in everyday intervention sessions. We also recently launched the HOT Evidence infographic series. These infographics provide a quick snapshot summary of the findings from AOTA systematic reviews. The Research Update column in AJOT is another example and this column includes short easy to digest summaries of current research on a particular theme with implications or clinical bottom lines for practitioners.

  1. Can you explain what it means to be a FAOTA?

FAOTA means a member of the Roster of Fellows of the American Occupational Therapy Association. This designation recognizes leadership among occupational therapists who have made a significant contribution to the profession through knowledge, expertise, leadership, or advocacy. Occupational therapists are nominated by peers who provide a detailed summary of the person’s skills and their impact on the profession or consumers. People can be nominated for scholarly contributions and organizational leadership too. It was truly one of the greatest honors of my career to receive this designation in 2016. I was nominated by my colleagues for my service and scholarship related to advancing school practice. Most of my efforts were focused on preparing OT students to work in school practice and getting OT practitioners a seat at the table to delivery school-based Response to Intervention services, which are now under the larger umbrella of Multi-tiered Systems of Support.

OTAs are eligible for a similar award called the Roster of Honor or ROH. The Roster of Honor recognizes occupational therapy assistants who through their knowledge, expertise, leadership, advocacy and guidance make significant contributions to the profession over time.

   7. What kind of advice would you like to give to OT practitioners and OT/OTA students?

I have a few pieces of advice that I would give OT/OTA students and new practitioners. One, never stop focusing on occupation. The profession of OT is unique, and, in my opinion, we bring the most value to our clients when we stay focused on the outcome of improving clients’ occupational performance and participation. Two, never stop being client-centered. Being client-centered means taking your clients’ preferences and interests into account, but it also means seeing your client as an occupational being. To do this well, you need to conduct an occupational profile and that profile needs to guide your decision-making, from selecting assessment tools, to designing interventions, to measuring outcomes. Three, never stop striving to ensure that you are providing the best quality OT services you can. To do that, you must use evidence and OT theory to inform your decision-making and your selection of interventions with every client, every time.

   8. How do you maintain a work life balance between volunteer work, your job, and your home life?

I think we have to take our own advice when it comes to maintaining occupational balance and I’m not perfect at this, but I’m getting better at it as time goes by. I think it’s about identifying the roles that are the most important to you and then designing performance patterns and contexts that support those roles. When things start to feel overwhelming or unmanageable, it’s about consciously revisiting those grounding habits, routines, and rituals. For me, family dinner and game night or a long walk in the woods with my husband are great “re-balancers” and help to put everything back into the right perspective.

Quote from Susan Cahill

- Never stop striving to ensure that you are providing the best quality OT services you can. To do that, you must use evidence and occupational therapy theory to inform your decision-making and your selection of interventions with every client, every time.

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