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OTs Can Make A Difference

Evert drew on motivation theory as a basis for examining welfare issues.

By Elisa R. Katz

Many occupational therapy practitioners are unaware that their abilities are congruent with current areas of focus in health care policy.

Mary Evert, MBA, OTR, FAOTA, past president of AOTA, worked within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) during the Reagan Administration, where she held various positions within the agency, including director of the office of community services.

During her tenure as director, she looked at ways to get women off the welfare rolls and into jobs. Evert drew on motivation theory (i.e., giving people choices, holding people accountable, and offering support) as a basis for examining welfare issues.

When asked how she thought her occupational therapy background benefited her, Evert stated, "It was almost everywhere." She was able to transfer her client skills into management skills, because the necessary components are the same.

Evert stresses that there are many opportunities like this available to OTs, but since this is a new area for them, they must be willing to take the risks involved in forging new paths.

Getting involved can seem intimidating and overwhelming. Yet, public policy issues can be dealt with at many different levels. Practitioners must take the initiative to introduce themselves to the field. One person can make a difference, and combining that power with others', can make the overall impact on policy extensive.

Here are 10 suggestions which offer a means for dealing with public policy issues at all levels of government. The activities support both the community and the professional integrity of the individual. At each end of the spectrum--from the local community to Washington, DC--and every level in between, these ideas can be useful and appropriately adapted.

* Promote and raise awareness of occupational therapy to community organizations, newspapers, television media, and insurance companies. Ways to do this could include a booth at a community festival with information on occupational therapy and an opportunity to try out some basic assistive devices such as reachers or sock aides. Also, write to local newspapers about what occupational therapy is achieving at your facility.

* Get involved with state and national professional organizations. Attend meetings, join task forces and committees. Many OT practitioners who have been involved with policy work have placed an emphasis on the knowledge they gained from working within professional organizations. This can be a stepping stone into further policy endeavors.

* Get involved with advocacy organizations for the populations you treat. Examples include the MS Society, Easter Seals, and the Alzheimer's Association. These organizations are familiar with our services and use them frequently. These are excellent community resources to advocate for occupational therapy.

* Work on creating partnerships with community organizations, workplaces, and insurance companies for health and wellness programming. With the focus on shortened hospital stays, many forget the greater benefits of preventive health programming.

* Get involved with research concerning the functional outcomes of OT interventions, particularly as they pertain to patients' return to their communities. The more research OTs are able to accumulate showing the benefits of their treatment, the more the profession will be able to justify its contribution to public health in regard to functional independence.

* Organize a letter-writing campaign to government officials on issues related to occupational therapy and functional independence. Don't be afraid to lobby on behalf of the profession. Let your elected officials know your views--they are your representatives to legislative bodies. For example, if occupational therapy services will be affected by budget cuts in health care spending, write to your representatives, the governor, etc. and let them know why occupational therapy services should be maintained.

* Volunteer in a political campaign for a candidate whose viewpoint reflects your own. Get to know the candidate and the staff; perhaps the staff will call on your expertise when creating or revising position papers. This is an excellent way to learn about the political process.

* Arrange meetings with state and national legislators to discuss issues of importance to your profession and your community. It is not always possible to meet directly with your representative. However, members of their staff (legislative assistants) are just as influential and knowledgeable. Gather together several colleagues to join you--more people have a more impressive presence.

* Take advantage of all opportunities that arise. Meetings or conferences which may initially seem like a nuisance may turn out to be opportunities to make difference regarding occupational therapy's presence within public policy. There is always something to be learned and always someone who can be taught about our field.

* Network! Several OT practitioners who have been involved with public policy stressed networking as a means to finding the areas where our contributions would be most helpful. Public policy decision-making accesses a wide variety of disciplines. Networking with many different professional will open doors to many previously unrecognized opportunities.

Occupational therapist involvement in public policy is not only timely but also advantageous. Broadening the areas influenced by OT expertise will continue to validate the positive impact that occupational therapy services have on the community.

As the health care landscape continues to change, we must not be afraid of trying new ways to promote our ideals, expertise, and concerns. Working in public policy, locally or federally, is complementary to many theoretical foundations. Communities will benefit, as will the entire profession. Now is the time to make a difference.

OT is poised in the appropriate position to begin taking leadership roles in the public policy arena.

* About the author: Elisa Katz, OTR, is a 2nd-year graduate student at Tufts University. She completed independent research regarding OT involvement in public policy while completing her master's degree and has worked on several political campaigns.


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