Are you looking for career where you can make a difference in people’s lives? Occupational therapy is a growing field in health care. One way to get your foot in the door in just two years is to graduate from an occupational therapy assistant program.
Occupational therapy assistants work under the direction of occupational therapists to help people with illnesses, injuries and disabilities recover and improve the skills needed for daily living.
Kessla Hines-Cartledge had already seen the value of occupational therapy first hand by the time she enrolled in the OTA program at Brown Mackie College-Atlanta. Her grandmother was severely injured in a chainsaw accident that left her without hands. With the help of occupational therapy assistants, she learned new ways to perform daily tasks.
“She was able to raise eight children and taught me how to cook and cut grass,” Hines-Cartledge said. “She’s my inspiration. I figured if she could do that, I could do anything.”
After serving as a senior airman and emergency medical technician in the Air Force Reserve, Hines-Cartletdge knew she wanted a career in health care. “I really enjoy helping people,” she said.
Hines-Cartletdge was accepted into the OTA program at Brown Mackie College in 2012.
“It’s been challenging, but after 18 months I’m beginning to see the light,” she said.
The program’s one-course-per-month format has made it possible for Hines-Cartledge to get an education and raise her two children. She plans to graduate in August 2014 and hopes to work in home health care.
“I like the idea of being in someone’s home and seeing their environment,” she said. “I think I’ll be better able to see what they need and to help them gain back their independence.”
Finding a job isn’t a worry. The demand for occupational therapy assistants is expected to increase by 43 percent from 2010 to 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“There’s a need for our students in Atlanta and Georgia. There’s a steady demand for our services because people are living longer and requiring more care, and accidents and illnesses that require therapy will always happen,” said Alisha Wright, associate dean and department chair of the OTA program at Brown Mackie College-Atlanta.
Brown Mackie College-Atlanta accepts 35 students into its associate of applied science degree program twice a year — in March and September. Applicants are required to have a high school diploma or GED, but if they can’t pass the Compass exam, they can take remedial courses and retake the test to become eligible for the program.
“Our students are a mix of men and women. Some come right out of high school, but many are older and changing careers,” Wright said.
Students learn about functional anatomy and occupational theory. They are trained in rehabilitative techniques, exercises and equipment needed to serve geriatric, pediatric, and neurologically and mentally challenged patients.
“The OTA works hand-in-hand with an occupational therapist. The therapist assesses the patient and designs a plan of care, but it is often the OTA who carries it out,” Wright said.
Meeting three hours a day, four days a week, students learn about theory in the classroom and how to apply it and practice their skills in the lab. Before graduating, they visit clinical sites to observe professionals at work and also complete an internship.
“This job requires a lot of skills. First, someone has to have a passion for helping others,” Wright said. “Since that can take many forms, they need to be open-minded and flexible when working with others.
“Students will also need good critical-thinking and problem-solving skills as well as some creativity in devising new ways for patients with limitations to accomplish their goals. Since it’s a physically demanding job, students will learn the proper body mechanics for safe lifting and transferring of patients.”
The program at Brown Mackie College-Atlanta is accredited by the American Occupational Therapy Association and the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education.
Tuition, books and supplies for the two-year program costs about $38,500. Financial aid and military education benefits are available. The college pays the $600 fee for first-time certification exam test-takers.
To practice in Georgia, occupational therapy assistants are required to pass the national certification exam administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy and must be licensed in the state.
“Our students have an 85 percent pass rate,” Wright said.
Graduates are prepared to work in pediatric clinics, rehabilitation centers, hospitals, school systems and sensory integration practices. Many find jobs in skilled nursing facilities.
Annual starting salaries in metro Atlanta average about $50,000, Wright said.
“One of the best rewards of working in this field is that you get to see the improvement in your patients,” she said. “You can help someone who had a stroke relearn to feed and dress (himself). You’re restoring their quality of life. In some cases, you’re giving them a second chance at life.”