OTA Recruits for Occupational Therapy
Ashley Opp Hofmann
“I have always felt that the occupational therapy assistant is the person who can break down walls, get into practice settings, and show what occupational therapy can do,” says Christi Vicino, COTA, director of the occupational therapy assistant program at Grossmont College in El Cajon, California. Vicino herself has been breaking down walls for occupational therapy, leading several innovative projects at Grossmont to promote—and recruit for—the profession.
Vicino initially became interested in occupational therapy while working as a transcriptionist for an occupational therapy company. “I was transcribing their reports and really got to feel like I was living each visit—I knew the patients and their progress,” she recalls. She pursued education to become an occupational therapy assistant at Mount St. Mary’s in Los Angeles.
Now the program director at Grossmont, Vicino launched a volunteer opportunity for occupational therapy assistant students to work with children with autism through an afterschool program. “I was looking into finding a community program we could partner with in a nontraditional area—an area where they were not using occupational therapy but maybe desired to at some point, so we could reinforce what occupational therapy practitioners can do,” Vicino says. “I stumbled upon an autism program in the area whose primary focus is to reintegrate students into the community and get them socially interacting.”
The autism program staff wanted to build a sensory integration room in their building, create a “sensory garden” alongside the building, and upgrade their playground, but they didn’t have time to research and do the legwork to come up with options. Vicino sent an e-mail to occupational therapy assistant students to gather volunteers to take on this role. Three teams of three students put together packets with price quotes and various options, complete with blueprints. This relationship led to Grossmont creating a Level I fieldwork at the program site this year, in which students observe and help run some of the groups.
Recruiting for Occupational Therapy
Vicino also participates in a program called Career Pathways. Grossmont received some grant funds to establish a “pathway” from local high schools to the college within the health care arena. “We look at how to get students linked up here at the college,” Vicino explains. Through Career Pathways, high school teachers in biology, anatomy, and physiology meet with representatives from local, participating colleges and discuss how they can get students prepared for health care education.
“There’s a school in particular we’ve been involved with that has a ‘medical academy.’ There’s no GPA requirement, it’s cross-cultural, and students have different levels of academic achievement, but they have the same career goal: health care,” Vicino says. Coordinating with the biology and physiology teacher, she visited and taught the class. “I taught basic anatomy of the hand, and then we did some grip strength testing and passed around dynamometers and pinch meters. The class completed worksheets and discussed why they thought one hand was stronger or weaker than the other and what they could do to increase their strength.”
The day was a success. “I’d say we touched about 90 students in one day who are college bound, already interested in health care, and who knew nothing about occupational therapy,” Vicino says.
Much of Vicino’s efforts have focused on recruitment. “I see that a lot of occupational therapy assistant programs are not filled to maximum capacity, and I know that there’s a shortage of them nationwide. The thing is, I don’t believe it’s because students aren’t interested; I believe it’s because they don’t know what occupational therapy is,” she says.
To inform potential students about occupational therapy, Vicino doesn’t limit herself to just high schools students—she goes after their guidance counselors as well. “I put together binders about occupational therapy, so when students see their counselor, they can hand them the binder,” Vicino explains. The binders contain uplifting stories about the profession—because, as Vicino puts it, “that’s the best way to explain occupational therapy.”
Her marketing efforts have paid off. Occupational therapy assistant student enrollment has doubled, with 32 new students in Grossmont’s incoming class.
Occupational therapy assistants can very effectively advocate for the occupational therapy profession in whatever setting they are in. By demonstrating their unique skills and training, occupational therapy assistants can increase employers’ demand for their skills as well as those of occupational therapists.