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Occupational Therapy Assistants are Needed Now

There's no question that occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) are in demand in many parts of North America. However, OTAs are finding that more than ever, it's the skill sets that are important, not just the designation that goes behind your name.

There's also no doubt that the profession is undergoing changes. In the past, both OTs (occupational therapists) and OTAs could pick the job they wanted and even name their price. Demand was at an all-time high, especially in the U.S.

School programs began filling up in record numbers. OTA programs were extremely appealing because they're only two years long. Compare that to OT programs, which take between four and six years to complete. Students could get in, get out, have their pick of jobs and earn a good living.

Unfortunately, high demand in any job often means people choose it for the wrong reasons. So when the Medicare cutbacks were announced in the U.S., salaries dropped and layoffs followed. The supply of OTAs quickly caught up with, and then exceeded, the demand.

But some people in the profession agree that this wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Christine M. Presson is the OTA program director for the Community College of Southern Nevada. She says some revisions were needed.

"The profession had to change, and it is changing," says Presson. OTs and OTAs can no longer name their price or be guaranteed a full-time job in a hospital once they're finished school.

However, she believes there is still very much a need for OTAs (and OTs). But graduating students must be more flexible -- in their attitudes, the money they can expect to earn and where they'll find employment.

Current trends show that more OTAs and OTs are finding employment outside of hospitals. Job openings are coming in nursing homes, wellness programs and increasingly, in areas of mental health.

Presson adds that it's also more common for her graduates to be hired for their skills, not necessarily their COTA (certified occupational therapy assistant) designation. She says that all of her recent graduates were offered jobs. But she admits that not all of them got the jobs they wanted.

But the job market is opening up again, says Presson. She adds that Nevada is extremely short of both OTs and OTAs.

Yvonne Topf is the now-retired director of OT at a hospital. Topf says most OTAs can get jobs without any problem. But some do start off in casual positions. Or some may hold two or three part-time positions until a full-time job is offered.

"It's a growing field, definitely," says Topf. She says that the recent graduating class in her area all had jobs if they wanted them. She believes that this demand will only grow as more home care systems are introduced.

"They're invaluable," says Topf of OTAs. She adds that they can do much of the hands-on treatments that OTs don't need to do.

OTs diagnose the patient and determine the treatment plan. The OTAs then help the patient through the plan. That means they actually do more of the hands-on treatment than the OT. It's important to realize, however, that OTAs are not trained to diagnose patients or provide treatment plans. They work under the supervision or direction of a registered OT.

Since OTs receive more training than OTAs (often four extra years of university), OTs do diagnosis, discharges, evaluations and ultimately, more administration.

Therefore, OTAs are needed to carry out the treatment plans. That can include everything from setting splints to helping patients get dressed to dealing with their emotions. It may require physical exercise for hand therapy or it could include baking a cake to help a patient through the thought process.

An OTA's job is extremely varied. It requires patience and caring, says Michelle Mahone. She is the OTA program instructor at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas.

"OTAs need to be go-getters and they must be willing to take a risk," she says. "They also need to be confident, have a good sense of self, and most of all, they need to be compassionate and good listeners."

OTAs can expect to make a lower salary than OTs, which is another reason they're in demand. Some companies find it more affordable to hire more OTAs than OTs. However, a registered OT still needs to be on site to provide supervision.

"The hardest thing about finding an entry-level job is that most sites don't have an OTA on site on a daily basis," explains Rosemary Calvert. She is a COTA in Delaware. She says that since she graduated one year ago, out of 16 graduates, only two members actually hold OTA positions. Many are in the medical field, but they're not all using their OTA skills.

But she agrees that OTAs do need to be flexible when looking for work. And she also believes the profession will make a comeback, even with health-care cuts. "I think [OT] will be in high demand again," adds Calvert. She says just recently, there have been more job openings, especially in the area of mental health.

Considering that the population is aging, fewer hospital beds are available and alternative medicine is on the rise, the need for OTAs isn't surprising. As Mahone points out, just because the funding changed, the patients' needs for therapy did not. She says these same patients are still in rehab. They still need therapy. And people are needed to provide these services.

"Anyone who really wants to work in the field of OT should be able to find a job," says Mahone. She says OTAs just need to know what their skills are.

"One doesn't always have to sign the credentials OT or OTA after their name in order to be successful with a degree in OT or OTA," adds Mahone. "They just need to use the skills they learned in the OTA classroom to build a successful career."


American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)
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