Specializing as an OTA

Those looking to boost their skills and stand out might consider a specialty certification

Ongoing changes in healthcare have left therapists wondering what they can do to stay ahead of the game and be prepared for whatever the future may hold. For many OTAs, the answer seems to be heading back to the classroom to specialize in their field of choice.

"I have been a COTA for five years in a long-term care facility, and I basically felt that I was doing the same thing everyday and I felt that I didn't really stand out from any other COTAs that I worked with," said Caroline Mullis, COTA/L, CLT, rehabilitation manager, The Gardens of Taylor Glen, Concord, N.C. "So I figured, why not do something different?"

Drawing from her experiences shadowing a lymphedema therapist, Mullis decided to put in the study hours to get her own specialty certification through the Academy of Lymphatic Studies, and it has made a huge difference for her career.

"There are nurses that have wound care certification and things like that, but you don't really think of a therapist having a specialty certification where I work," said Mullis. "So it is nice to be able to say, yes, I have this behind my name and under my belt, this is what I know about it."

OTAs in any setting can give their careers a similar facelift with any number of specialty certifications, such as lymphedema, assistive technology, brain injury, and driver and community mobility, to name a few.


Deciding to specialize can be a big decision and one OTAs shouldn't make quickly.

"Look at what your community needs," advised Carla Wehking, COTA/L, CLT, Holton Community Hospital, Holton, Kan., who decided to seek certification as a lymphedema therapist after realizing patients from her community were traveling anywhere between 30 and 60 miles for treatment.

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Specialty-certified OTAs also recommend gaining general experience first, and then shadowing another certified therapist or moving into a specialty field. Both will provide the hands-on experience you'll need to make a confident decision.

"I don't think any of us should specialize unless we have practiced in general practice for at least a few years, because you don't know enough to specialize that early," advised Michele Luther-Krug, COTA/L, SCADCM, CDRS, ROH, Rehabilitation Services, Piedmont Fayette Hospital, Fayetteville, Ga., and president of the Association for Driver Rehabilitation Specialists (ADED). Luther-Krug had 10 years of experience before being one of the first to certify in 2005 through AOTA's newly launched Driving and Community Mobility certification program. "It is just a matter of building a foundation so you can really synthesize what a specialty means."

For experienced OTAs, certification has the potential to reshape your career path and help you stand out in the crowd.

"When the new certification came along I wanted to be a part of it," Luther-Krug said. "If you look at what OTA guidelines of supervision allow, a lot of the reason OTAs are allowed to practice with more autonomy is because they gain further certification or expertise on another level beyond their basic degree."

"It's a big area of need, because for OTAs to be able to be more autonomous to some degree - you still always have to work with an OT - but to be allowed to be legally proficient at a certain level of assessment, these are tools to help you achieve that," Luther-Krug added.


Specialty certification is an excellent opportunity to build upon your education and clinical experience, which can come in handy when taking on new challenges.

"When I came to this rehab, I thought I needed some more knowledge, and I wanted to have more treatment skills to help patients and their families," said Jennifer L. Barber, COTA/L, CBIS, Crichon Rehabilitation Center, Conemaugh Health System, Johnstown, Pa., who became certified as a brain injury specialist through the Academy of Certified Brain Injury Specialists after 22 years of experience treating patients with TBI.

"The [certification] course taught me how to focus more on the families," she said. It also emphasized the importance of functional tasks such as money management, laundry and cooking tasks as "vital to their recovery and who they are as a person."

Particularly for OTAs treating patients with less-understood diagnoses like lymphedema, it can have a huge impact on patient care, as Mmadhumita Guha, COTA/L, CLT, HCR ManorCare, Pittsburgh, well knows. Shadowing a lymphedema therapist and getting her own certification has helped Guha realize the far-reaching benefits of the relatively new lymphedema treatment method.

"I want to open a lymphedema clinic, because it is pretty frustrating to see how many people suffering from [lymphedema] are often not getting Manual Lymph Drainage (MLD), which can facilitate the body's own healing process," Guha said. "MLD can be used for total body decongestion after surgery and other edemas, so there is a huge opportunity for application to make a difference. If more COTAs can get certified . they can come back and practice in the nursing homes, which would be much better for patients."

Like many practitioners, Wanda Kolipinski, COTA/L, ATP, outpatient pediatric AT coordinator, Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Network, Allentown, Pa., stumbled upon her specialty when her facility was in need - and she stepped up to the plate. After buying their first Apple IIGS computer in 1992, the staff at Good Shepherd was at a loss for what to do with it.

"Technology was not nearly as easy to use at that time as it is now, so that was the start of my interest," said Kolipinski. "I thought, 'well, I can figure this out,' and I did. I saw an opportunity for children to have access to computers via single switches, touch screens and adaptive keyboards."

Her growing interest led her to complete an assistive technology certificate program at Penn State University in 1995, and nearly 10 years later to certify as an assistive technology practitioner through the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America. With a specialty in a rapidly changing area like technology, Kolipinski stays ahead of the curve in part by keeping her certification up-to-date with yearly continuing education courses - not to mention national conferences, speaking opportunities, clinician collaboration and perpetual on-the-job learning.


With more education under their belts, OTAs like Kolipinski are branching out and climbing the ladder of success.

"It has given me opportunities to advance my career here at Good Shepherd, specializing in a particular area," Kolipinski said. "I have gone from working as a staff clinician to now being the outpatient pediatric assistive technology coordinator. I currently work with a team of clinicians in our pediatric program to expand the learning and understanding of technology. This will help us to better provide technology services to both our pediatric inpatient and outpatient populations."

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Wehking agreed. Certification, she said, "has given me the avenue to meet other colleagues and get associated with other hospitals and doctors in other areas around us. I actually help out in another clinic at a larger hospital a couple days a week using the certification, which never would have been open to me without [it]."

But the benefits of certification extend well beyond personal career advancement. It's also a great asset for your organization, possibly increasing revenue, according to Wehking, and improving your facility's scope of practice, Kolipinski noted.

"It is important to [specialize] in clinical practice because. specialists really bring value to an organization or facility, whether it's in assistive technology or any other areas of specialization," Kolipinski added. "It makes that organization valuable for having those persons on staff to provide a service that otherwise may not be available to clients who need the skill and training of specialist services."


Regardless of their various specialties and the certification processes that got them there, OTAs all agree getting certified is always a great idea.

"Go for it, it's definitely worth it," Mullis said. "It makes you stand out and makes you more confident; you learn new techniques, new education."

"It also makes you marketable too, because you never know how the healthcare industry, especially insurances, are going to pay out, so anything extra you can do makes you more marketable," Wehking concluded.

Rebecca Hepp is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact: rhepp@advanceweb.com.


I am interested in learning a new skill. I am interested in a certification program.
Denise Beggs, COTA

Denise Beggs,  COTA,  NURSING HOMEApril 27, 2014
Waco, TX

I am interested in the areas of specialization for COTA's. I have been in the skilled nursing field w/ this being my 20th year. I have been considering lymphedema management.

Nancy Reagan,  COTA,  Susquehanna Nsg & Rehabilitation CenterApril 03, 2014
Johnson City, NY 13790, NY

I am interested in learning about the various Certification Programs available.

Debbie 45248,  COTA,  CommunityAugust 17, 2013
Cincinnati, OH

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