published Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Occupational therapy program at UTC in flux


by Emily Bregel

The future is uncertain for a UTC master's degree program in occupational therapy, which officials say no longer will accept new students starting this fall.

"We believe it was a valuable program and that it was providing qualified health care professionals -- many of whom stayed in Chattanooga -- so we hope we can get it (reopened) at some point in the future," said Cheryl Scheid, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's occupational therapy program is a satellite of the UT Health Science Center, which is based in Memphis.

Although the 20 students now enrolled will be able to finish their studies over the next year or two, the news is disappointing for students in the program.

"We need more occupational therapists (in Chattanooga)," said Heather Ivey, 23, a second-year student in the program. "If they cut the program down, that is less people in this area that are going to get to be served and helped."

Dr. Scheid attributed the decision to close enrollment to "budgetary and staffing issues." She referred to the change as "temporary," but she said the future of the program's site in Chattanooga will depend on financial issues and on the input of Noma Bennett Anderson, the incoming dean of the College of Allied Health Sciences who will start this summer.

"You've got to still finish out a couple of years of students who are in progress. Anything can happen," Dr. Scheid said.

UTC spokesman Chuck Cantrell said the university is looking at how it might start up another master's program in occupational therapy within the university, but he said that's not immediately possible.

"UTC is interested in perhaps trying to revive the program or save it at some point," he said. "We just don't have the resources and partnerships together at this time. We are committed to still having it in Chattanooga, even as a UTC program."

The occupational therapy program -- a partnership among UTC, the UT Health Science Center and Siskin Hospital for Physical Rehabilitation here -- was launched in 2006, three years after UTC's bachelor-level program was dismantled due to budget constraints.

In 2003, the bachelor's degree program would have had to upgrade to a master's level to comply with new professional licensure regulations, but the university could not afford the change, officials said.

The distance-learning arrangement, linking Chattanooga students to professors in Memphis with support from Siskin Hospital, re-established an occupational therapy curriculum locally with less overhead, officials said.

Siskin provides space for students' clinical training and funds a faculty position within the program, said Linda Lind, senior vice president and chief operating officer for Siskin.

A number of students who have graduated from the occupational therapy program have stayed in Chattanooga to practice, helping lessen a shortage of specialists, Ms. Lind said.

"It's been a wonderful addition to this community," she said. "We would definitely hate to see it be discontinued."

WHAT IS OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY?

Occupational therapy typically helps people with conditions such as stroke, developmental disabilities, work-related injuries or serious chronic conditions.

Services typically include customized treatment programs to improve one's ability to perform daily activities; home and job site evaluations with adaptation recommendations; performance skills assessments and treatment; adaptive equipment recommendations and usage training; and guidance to family members and caregivers.

Source: American Occupational Therapy Association

The change could shake up plans for more than 40 undergraduate UTC students majoring in rehabilitative sciences with a focus on occupational therapy, said Lisa Schubert, interim site coordinator for the satellite program in Chattanooga. The students were planning to apply for the now-closed master's program, she said.

Those students will have the option of pursuing the occupational therapy program at the Memphis campus, UT Health Science Center officials said.

Ms. Schubert said the program's popularity had been growing.

"Our applicant pool has tripled in the past year. We currently have 39 applicants for this coming year that had to be told that there is no incoming class in Chattanooga," she said.

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about Emily Bregel...

Health care reporter Emily Bregel has worked at the Chattanooga Times Free Press since July 2006. She previously covered banking and wrote for the Life section. Emily, a native of Baltimore, Md., earned a bachelor’s degree in American Studies from Columbia University. She received a first-place award for feature writing from the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists’ Golden Press Card Contest for a 2009 article about a boy with a congenital heart defect. She ...

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