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The Doctor(ate) Is In

By John Leighty
Monday October 31, 2011


Demand is growing for doctor of occupational therapy graduates across the highly competitive healthcare spectrum. Therapists who obtain OTD degrees, often in post-professional studies, gain advanced research, clinical and leadership skills that may give them advantages over their peers, according to those who have put in the time and money required to earn the degree.

“OTs, in general, are in demand and the advanced OTD degree is very appealing,” said Karen Jacobs, OTR/L, EdD, CPE, FAOTA, a clinical professor and director of the OTD distance education program at Boston University College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College.

There are 13 OTD candidates enrolled in online courses in the BU post-professional program and jobs are waiting when they graduate, said Jacobs. However, return-on-investment is hard to gauge, since salary differences have not been tracked. The OTD graduates achieve learning, clinical and leadership qualities that set them apart, Jacobs said. “It allows them to get good promotions, be more mobile and work in more desirable settings.”

Denise Finch, OTR/L
The BU program’s mission is to prepare skilled OTs to be visionary practitioners and dedicated leaders in the field of occupational performance, Jacobs said. An OTD student acquires knowledge and skills necessary to conduct critical evaluation of theory and evidence in their areas of practice, identify shortcomings in current intervention methods, and design innovative solutions, she said.

Elysa Roberts, OTR/L, PhD, director of the post-professional OTD graduate program at Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions in Provo, Utah, said OTD status can open doors to areas previously perceived as closed.

“It can lead to opportunities you may not have considered, but which are personally satisfying, such as publishing a case report or being an invited keynote speaker,” said Roberts, who earned her MS in occupational therapy at Florida International University, Miami, and PhD in occupational therapy, which was focused on policy research, at Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Nova Southeastern also offers a DrOT degree.)

Rocky Mountain’s distance learning program is focused on a clinical track with electives to concentrate in areas of administration and practice management, aging, pediatric science, and hand therapy, Roberts said. “It is geared for building leaders’ capabilities to appraise and apply the best available evidence at the point of care.”

Roberts said the primary motivators for pursuing the post-professional OTD at Rocky Mountain are to:

• Quench a thirst for lifelong learning

• Enhance credibility in conversing with patients, families, students and referral sources

• Build skills to offer the best care to patients

• Contribute to the body of knowledge and evidence supporting the field

“Generally speaking, our post-professional OTD graduates report they are not pursuing this degree for more money,” Roberts said. “Our graduates are optimistic about the intangible ‘return on investment’ this degree offers. Often, with a transformed sense of clinical and scholarly competence comes a higher earning potential.”

While the program is rigorous, there’s a strong support network of resources to help them succeed, she said, adding 40 candidates are enrolled. “We attract bright, highly committed and ambitious applicants who understand that with effort and some temporary sacrifice, comes a reward that is forever.”

Katie Jordan, OTR/L
Learn while in practice

Denise Finch, OTR/L, CHT, CCN, a home-based industrial rehabilitation specialist in Amherst, N.H., said she applied knowledge and ideas gained from BU’s online OTD curriculum to her day-to-day practice as she went through the 22-week program.

“I’ve taken material I’ve learned and incorporated it in my practice,” said Finch, who earned her bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy from the University of New Hampshire in 1982 and worked in a variety of clinical settings before starting her own business. While working on her doctoral project, which reviewed risk factors related to computer workstations, Finch took findings from interviews, research and statistical data, and created informational brochures to hand out to local clients.

In her practice, Finch visits companies to evaluate employee injuries and work-related complaints, develop rehabilitation or remedial strategies, and offer solutions to structural ergonomic hazards. “I determine who should return to work, stay at work or leave work.”

The OTD program inspired her to get involved in state and national issues, including supporting legislation on ergonomics standards and worksite safety, and qualifying occupational therapy services under workers’ compensation laws. “I wanted to reconnect with the profession, improve my knowledge of current OT trends, and continue to work,” said Finch, who completed her formal courses in September. “It has wound up being a transformative experience for me.”

Nancy Doyle, OTR/L, OTD, said she chose the BU program as a formal way to show personal growth and development, and to pursue teaching opportunities in the future. Doyle worked as an external facilitator of online education for the school and was attracted to the doctorate degree because of the personalized mentoring.

“I also found the course offerings to be innovative, forward-thinking and socially conscious,” said Doyle, who received her BA in psychology from Yale University, and her MS in occupational therapy from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The OTD program required her to take two seven-week courses per semester, including social policy and disability, evaluating clinical theory and research, and health promotion and wellness. Concurrently, she worked on a doctoral project that combined her clinical and instructional interests titled “Accommodating Graduate Student Learning Styles in Post-Professional Online Occupational Therapy Courses.”

Karen Jacobs, OTR/L
The OTD program gave Doyle the flexibility to work part-time as an online education facilitator, be a mother to her newborn child, and keep her travel options open because her husband is a foreign service diplomat, all while developing new skills and knowledge. “I was both nurtured and challenged,” Doyle said.

Of 18 university OTD programs across the country, 10 are post-professional programs offered online with several days of on-campus meetings with peers and mentors required, usually at the start and end of the distance coursework. At the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, distance learning is offered as an option in the second year, while the University of Illinois in Chicago has a blended program of campus and online studies.

Erna Blanche, OTR/L, PhD, FAOTA, an associate professor and clinical coordinator for OTD candidates at USC, said the on-campus program is growing steadily in popularity and professional recognition.

While OTDs might start work in some clinical settings at salaries equivalent to OTs with master’s degrees, they have advanced research, analytical and administrative skills that give them an edge, Blanche said. “They’re ready to take leadership roles, and they go up the career ladder much faster.”

This year’s class has 29 OTD candidates, up from 22 last year, and 124 students have gone through the program since it was launched 10 years ago, said Blanche, an expert in pediatric occupational therapy and interventions based on occupational science.

“There is increasing interest as we go along,” said Blanche, who got her basic training at the University of Chile in Santiago, an MS in special education at Columbia University in New York, and her PhD in occupational science, the study of the phenomena of occupation, at USC. “I’m convinced the OTD is the degree of the future,” she said.

Sarah Bream, OTR/L
Gaining clout

Katie Jordan, OTR/L, OTD, is an associate professor of clinical occupational therapy at USC. Jordan said it is important to be an advocate for occupational therapy services in competitive clinical care climates where many professionals have terminal degrees, such as PhDs, in their fields. “The issue becomes relevant when you only have a master’s,” said Jordan, who earned her dual undergraduate BA degrees at the University of California, Irvine, her MA in occupational therapy at USC in 2003 and her doctorate a year later. “Having a doctorate in OT helped me get a seat at the table.”

Holding an OTD was a huge advantage when she moved to Austin, Texas, in 2008 to work at an acute-care hospital as part of a clinical team, Jordan said. “They identified me as a candidate who could handle responsibilities. I started as an OT on the clinical team and left as director of rehabilitation.”

Sarah Bream, OTR/L, OTD, was a practicing therapist for 12 years when she decided to pursue her doctorate at USC out of curiosity and a feeling she might be “missing something” in her career.

“The future is extremely bright for OTDs, especially in light of federal healthcare reform and our system’s need to develop an integrated service delivery model,” said Bream, who received her OTD in August 2009. Some healthcare settings may offer a higher salary for OTDs, but the key advantage is in program development and leadership roles across all clinical practice areas, Bream said.

Bream holds a leadership role within the Occupational Therapy Association of California and is full-time clinical faculty at the USC’s Division of Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy. “Yes, the OTD opens doors. The OTD ignites leadership potential,” she said.

John Leighty is a freelance writer.

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By John Leighty
Monday October 31, 2011
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