The peripatetic OT academic


“Occupational therapy has morphed completely,” says Dr. Anne Carswell, DIP(O TH)’63, BSc(OT)’78, MSc’81. (Photo courtesy of Anne Carswell)

By Sophia Blankenhorn

Not many people can say that they set the standard for occupational therapy in Canada.

Dr. Anne Carswell, DIP(O TH)’63, BSc(OT)’78, MSc’81, is one of them.

In addition to her work as an educator, researcher and clinician, she is a co-author of the Canadian Occupational Performance Measure (COPM) and one of the founding directors of COPM Inc., which forms a foundation for occupational therapy (OT) practice in Canada.

It was Carswell’s curiosity that prompted her to return to school after her first diploma: “As a clinician I was very interested in why things did or did not happen. And so, I went back to McGill and did my bachelor’s and master’s [in community health], which I think gave me the skills to try and answer the ‘whys’ as a clinician.” Her children and then husband, she says, encouraged her, noticing how happy it made her. In 1990, she would earn a PhD in epidemiology and biostatistics from the University of Toronto.

Carswell’s first clinical position was at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. “It was a wonderful experience that taught me how to work on my own, and I was full of questions—how could we better serve these children and get them into the community? I was working with children on learning everyday skills that would enable them, if they kept going, to be able manage on their own,” she says.

Her focus would eventually shift, though, from children to older adults living with dementia and frailty.

Throughout her career, Carswell has seen the field evolve dramatically. “Occupational therapy has morphed completely. When I graduated OT, there was less focus on intervention and tended to have a greater focus on mental health rather than on physical health. Whereas today occupational therapy is a well evidenced practice with evidence-based intervention, and is more client centered.”

Carswell and her colleagues who created the COPM can claim a role in this transformation.

According to its website, the COPM “is an evidence-based outcome measure designed to capture a client’s self-perception of performance in everyday living, over time.”

To create the COPM, Carswell joined forces with five of her peers, who shared her interest in exploring and defining best practices. “We met frequently to discuss, dissent and argue to arrive at the COPM. We are all independently minded, meaning we all had different ideas and experiences so we had many interesting and lively discussions,” she remembers.

Since its publication in 1991, the COPM has enjoyed considerable success in Canada and throughout the English-speaking world. There are still some barriers to its universal adoption, namely the lack of a sufficient foundation in some contexts. Carswell says, “One obstacle we still face is that in other countries they do not yet have the same sort of model and OT language established. But, I have to say, when they get it, they get it and just fly with it. Cyprus was one place where the therapists really grasped it, and Egypt was another. They were very eager and enthusiastic about what it could do for them professionally.”

Carswell’s career took her from East Coast to West, and saw her travel to many countries abroad, leading her to refer to herself as the ‘peripatetic OT academic.’

She served as faculty member at the McGill School of Physical & Occupational Therapy (1975–83) and as Interim Director of the School’s Occupational Therapy program (1979–80). She also held director roles at schools at the University of Ottawa, the University of British Columbia and Dalhousie University, in addition to teaching at the University of Toronto and serving as a visiting professor at McMaster University and in Japan at Kobe University.

In 1990, Carswell was the recipient of the Muriel Driver Memorial Lectureship Award, the highest honour the Canadian Association of 
Occupational Therapists can bestow, for outstanding contribution to the occupational therapy profession in Canada.

This fall at McGill Homecoming, Carswell will receive the 2017 Medicine Alumni Global Award of Merit for the School of Physical & Occupational Therapy in recognition of her extraordinary contribution to the profession.

Now retired, Carswell is taking time to focus on her partner, the rest of her family and a few personal projects, including the collection of lesbian histories and the study of mindfulness as a means of stress reduction.

When asked if she has any advice for current students and recent graduates, Carswell says, “Take the challenges and run with them. There is no limit, in my perspective, on what you can do, no limit whatsoever.”


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