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Fresh Start

Occupational therapy professors reflect on building new degree programs

Starting a new occupational therapy degree program from the ground up is a daunting endeavor. How will you recruit faculty? Who will be your students? Will you make it through the accreditation process? While the process is not always smooth sailing, at the end, some fortunate future occupational therapy students will have a new place to hone their craft.

Treasure State Education
The University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D. already had an occupational therapy program, but they saw a need to expand into a neighboring state. At the time they opened in the fall of 2013, Montana had both an OT shortage and no occupational therapy school. "Part of our mission is to serve people of our region and beyond," explained Janeene Sibla, O.T.D., OTR/L, associate professor, occupational therapy program director. Opening a Billings, Mont. campus for occupational therapy seemed like a good fit.

Their main OT program has been in existence for over fifteen years, so the university had the advantage of not having to reinvent the wheel.  In terms of ACOTE accreditation, Sibla said, "We're going to be considered a distance program not an additional location. We prepare just like for any site visit."

Students, fieldwork sites and faculty are big pieces of the occupational school puzzle, and so far, the Billings branch has not hurt for either. To date, there have been an equal number of applicants for both the Billings and the Bismarck sites. Prospective students list their preference and the university does its best to match it.  There is a network of University of Mary alumni already in place in Montana that proved indispensible when finding clinical rotation sites.

Sibla also credits the local physical therapy community for their involvement with the program. Physical therapists have presented guest lectures at the university and put in good words for University of Mary OT students at their clinics and hospitals, opening the door to relationships for occupational therapy clinical rotations.

"The Montana OT Association is eager to have us there," said Sibla. Before the program even began, she got several phone calls each week from Billings-based occupational therapists. "We're so excited you're coming. What can we do to help?" was the general tone of those discussions. The program's very first faculty hire was a Billings native. "All of her connections to local businesses are great."

"We've had good luck hiring faculty," she remarked. In fact, all of the existing faculty had reached out before positions were even posted.  The attraction of Montana, with the campus being close to the mountains for skiing and hiking, and a low cost of living, Sibla believes will make it an easy sell for future hires.

It's been mostly smooth sailing in Montana for the University of Mary. In fact, Sibla mentioned her biggest surprise was how quickly this new OT program became successful. Hopefully they have started to put a dent in their state's OT shortage.

A Capital Idea
A clinician shortage is not the issue in Virginia or Washington, DC, but that did not stop two other universities from starting new occupational therapy programs. George Washington University in our nation's capital will began a post-professional occupational therapy doctorate program. The first cohort of 10-15 students enters the program in Fall 2014. Their OTD program is designed for practicing therapists. "We are focusing on master clinicians who can impact practice in the areas where they are working," noted Mary Corcoran, OTR/L, Ph.D., FAOTA, associate dean for faculty development for health sciences and professor of clinical research and leadership.

To find students, they're targeting OTs practicing in post-acute chronic care, since that will be the focus of the degree. "We're getting the word out as many ways as we can," explained Corcoran. A booth at April's AOTA Annual Meeting drew a strong response. GWU's external relations department has created an ad campaign and a website was launched on June 1.

One of the selling points of this degree is that it will be offered online. "We are letting people know they don't have to interrupt their lives," Corcoran said. Students are not penalized if they take a semester off and do not need to take a certain number of credits within a specific time frame. "We've been centering on healthcare quality, translational research and transdisciplinary practice."  The OTD students will learn what it takes to conduct research and be in a team-oriented environment.  She continued, "Someone can sit in their home office and be working with a team of professionals."

Currently the program has two full-time faculty members and Corcoran is looking to hire a third full-timer, in addition to several adjuncts who are content experts in their field. George Washington University has a team of instructional designers and resources for people who've never taught online before.
Corcoran credits support from colleagues both inside and outside the beltway. Thomas Fisher, OTR, PhD, FAOTA of Indiana University and Leslie Davidson, OTR, PhD, FAOTA of Shenandoah University provide valuable counsel. Of Trudy Mallinson, PhD, OTR/L, NZROT, who is a newcomer to George Washington, Corcoran said, "She's been a great fit. She understands post-acute care and measuring quality indicators."

OT in Old Dominion
Farther south, Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. is embracing not just occupational therapy, but the entire field of health sciences.  The Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences welcomed its first classes in June of this year. "We had done an extensive needs assessment and determined one of the needs in the area was allied health," said Nathan Herz, OTD, MBA, OTR/L, CEAS, professor, occupational therapy program director. "This was a huge opportunity to do something inter-professional."

Cooperation will be a hallmark of the OT program at Mary Baldwin, which features an entry-level occupational therapy doctorate, the first of its kind in Virginia. 15 classes will be shared with DPT students and occupational students will have four to six common classes with physician assistant students. All three disciplines will co-attend classes on team-building. In professional settings, collaboration is a necessary skill and Murphy Deming graduates will be taught it early.

Herz credits Linda Seestedt-Stanford, PhD, vice president of health sciences and the rest of the executive staff with the efficiency with which this new program has gotten off the ground. "She knows the ins and outs," he said, noting that theirs was the third new building that Seestedt-Stanford has overseen the construction of in her career.

The new health sciences building is located mere blocks from Augusta Health Hospital, which should come in handy once it's time to place the OT students in fieldwork sites. "The amount of community support is amazing," Herz recalled. They've been going door-to-door to recruit sites for clinical placements and have so far, met with success. As for hiring faculty, they've placed national ads and Herz said he's been fortunate at the number of applicants each position has drawn. "One of things that make it attractive is the big inter-professional aspect."

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Of course, the program wouldn't be anything without students. Mary Baldwin College used the occupational therapist centralized application service to attract nationwide applicants and was surprised at the number of interested students for a new program. In a teaching and learning track OTD students interested in becoming professors themselves one day will examine how people learn and how they can be effective teachers.  The inaugural occupational therapy class will have 35 students. About 55% are Virginia residents and the rest came from all over the country, providing some geographic diversity.

Herz noted, "Mary Baldwin, when they planned this, they did it right. We keep quality at the forefront."

New OT's in the Gold en State
For West Coast University in southern California, branching out into occupational therapy was an obvious choice. "The university was most known for nursing, but made the strategic decision to expand on the healthcare programs it offers in the Los Angeles area," said Nicolaas Van Den Heever, OTR/L, founding dean and program director, Master of Science in Occupational Therapy program. Even though California is the state with the most occupational therapists, it is also the most populous state in the country, so the need for more OTs remains high.

The first class MSOT class entered West Coast University's Los Angeles campus in the fall of 2013. Word-of-mouth was a major factor in attracting students. "A lot of students applied to our university because clinicians where they volunteer have asked them, 'Have you considered West Coast University?'," said Van Den Heever. Additionally, he noted that the university was generous with marketing. The class entering this September-the third cohort- will have 28 students out of almost 190 applicants.

"The MSOT received a lot of autonomy to develop this program," noted Van Den Heever. "Financially, academically and operationally, they (West Coast University) were very supportive in moving this program forward." He drew on his 18 years of experience working in southern California to find potential fieldwork sites. The program was fortunate to hire a fieldwork coordinator, Diane Gale, MBA, OTR/L, who was also from Los Angeles area and could draw on the relationships she had in place. So far, they have gotten positive feedback from the  clinical sites where students have completed level I fieldwork, who praised the students as well-prepared.

At the 2013 AOTA Annual Meeting in San Diego, the program introduced itself to the OT community via presentations, giveaways and sponsorships. The marketing blitz paid off. West Coast University didn't need to place any advertisements for faculty jobs and made all its hires by occupational therapists interested in academic careers approaching them.

As seems to be a trend with other new programs, Van Den Heever noted, "The university is very committed to inter-professional learning." Collaboration between occupational therapy, physical therapy, nursing and pharmacy is at the center of all programs.

 Currently, West Coast University's MSOT program is considered to be in developing program status. They submitted their final self-study for accreditation last December and ACOTE is scheduled to do a site visit in October 2014. "I'm confident we will do well," said Van Den Heever.

Danielle Bullen is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact: 


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