News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 28, 2013

Rural shortage: Students off to fast start in new program that leads them to a career in occupational therapy

Dave Taylor
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Graduate students in Indiana State University’s newest health care education program recently dressed stuffed animals, sorted pills while wearing vision-limiting goggles and positioned splints on perfectly healthy fingers.

Just weeks into a three-year course of study, 26 occupational therapy master’s degree students were learning about the field’s broad scope.

Despite the name, occupational therapists do much more than address workplace issues, explained Jeanne Sowers, associate professor of applied medicine and rehabilitation and director of the occupational therapy program.

“Occupational therapists deal with the activities of daily living,” Sowers said.

Therapists might go from helping children with learning and cognitive disabilities improve their fine motor skills by dressing stuffed animals to teaching senior citizen stroke patients to use specially-designed silverware and plate guards to feed themselves.

The opportunity to work with people of all ages is among the reasons Jeremy Carson of Nashville, Ind., who completed a master’s degree in exercise science in May, decided to remain at Indiana State and become part of its first class of occupational therapy master’s students.

“I’m kind of a personable person, so being able to actually interact with patients instead of just … doing a diagnosis and then moving on to the next patient, is what interested me,” he said.

The occupational therapy program at Indiana State consists of two years of classroom and lab study followed by six months of field work, Sowers said. Graduates will be able to practice as occupational therapists following passage of a national certification exam.

“I knew I wanted to be in the medical field and knew I probably wanted to do something with therapy,” said Johanna Caress of Whiteland. “I learned about occupational therapy and about how you have to be creative. I’m a pretty creative person and so I like all of the adaptive equipment.”

Sowers came to Indiana State to develop and launch the occupational therapy program, one of several new degree offerings the College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services has established in recent years to help address a shortage of health care providers, especially in rural areas. Sowers is aware of one health care facility that has had three openings for occupational therapists in the past three years but has not been able to fill them.

As with all health care programs at Indiana State, occupational therapy will incorporate inter-professional education so students gain a better understanding of their role and that of other providers.

The students can look forward to training in the Rural Health Innovation Collaborative Simulation Center alongside students from such areas as nursing, athletic training, social work and speech-language pathology, Sowers said.

All of the students in the program’s first class are Indiana residents and many are small town natives who plan to return to their rural roots, Sowers proudly noted. “I came from a rural area of Kansas. So one of the biggest attractions to me was the rural development,” she said. “It’s almost like a mission to go to those underserved areas … where people don’t have access to the health care they need.”