Regular columnist Kate Sheehan discussed the criteria for calling yourself an expert in the last issue of The OT Magazine

Kate SheehanI have been pondering what it is that makes you an expert in your chosen specialism. Is it the length of time spent in practice, is it being well-read in an area of practice, or is it someone who has researched that subject matter?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the definition is: “a person who has special skill or knowledge in some particular field”.  However, I much prefer the Merriam Webster definition and explanation:

“You need to be more than skilled, accomplished, talented, proficient, or gifted to be an expert. You have to be someone with broad competences, knowledge, and skills, acquired through research, education, experience, and practice in a particular field to be truly considered an expert”.

If we use this definition, what makes an occupational therapist an expert in their chosen specialism? Breaking down the above definition into its component parts, I have put my thoughts against each area.

Broad competence
To me, this means an understanding of how to communicate both verbally and in writing with clients. Understanding your chosen field and working with your supervisor to develop your competence through working with clients and further education. One of my best experiences was shadowing a tree officer: I learned so much about ground drainage, flooding, and tree preservations orders, and I still use this knowledge 30 years later.

Being able to learn the facts and relevant information. In my field, understanding the legal duties we have within housing and social care, and Part M of the building regulations in detail is of great importance, in particular the technical details that an architect will discuss with you. 

Skill acquired through research
Being able to use relevant clinical research to back up your clinical reasoning, and base your practice on those research articles from across the world.

Skill acquired through education
Learning never stops. You must be able to show that you are learning all the time. This could be understanding a new government policy or reviewing a new product just released onto the market. If you are not up to date on all parts of your specialism, you are not an expert.

Skills acquired through experience
This does not necessarily mean years and years of experience, but a length of time that has allowed you to work with different clients, in different situations, and have been able to develop and constantly improve intervention skills over that period and in everyday practice.

Skill acquired through practice
Our clients are our experts. Through working with my clients, I have learned the most – listening is one of the best ways to educate yourself. It is also important to learn from your mistakes. None of us get it right all the time, but what is important is is how you use that experience, reflect on it, and make sure you don’t make the same mistakes again.

I can say with absolute conviction that I am a housing and equipment expert. I do not know everything but have an amazing network of colleagues who I can call on for advice and for informal peer supervision. What I know I am not is a neuro-rehab, sensory, forensic, or hand expert and would never practice in those areas or claim to be one. Although I do think over a lifetime of being an OT you can move from one specialism to another if you choose to do so. However, if you are not practising in the field you moved from, you will lose your expertise very quickly.

Understanding the scope of our area of expertise is our professional responsibility.  During my very brief career in the medical legal world, a very experienced QC took me into court to practice my evidence. The first thing he asked was: “why do you think you are an expert?” It completely flummoxed me, and over the period of 20 minutes he teased out my knowledge and skills with very probing questions. We left the court and over a coffee, he told me to never ever say I can do things outside my expertise because if I wound up in front of him in court he said: “I will take you down, stick to what you are an expert in.” This experience really stayed with me and to this day I am very clear about what I am an expert in and how I could demonstrate that in court if I ever needed to.

We cannot be an expert in every area of practice. I would not presume to be a neuro-rehab expert and I would not expect a neuro-rehab OT to be a housing expert. The additional benefit of this approach is we become known for our clearly defined expertise and not a jack of all trades.

You can follow Kate on Twitter @OTKateSheehan

Image by ElasticComputeFarm from Pixabay 

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