As Elvio Gaba watched his father cope with a stroke, Gaba was impressed with the occupational therapists who seemed to help him improve every day.
Gaba, who was working in Omaha as a phlebotomist, decided to apply to a doctorate-level occupational therapy program at Creighton University. But interest in the field is growing as fast as the job prospects, and in a scenario playing out at occupational therapy programs across the nation, Creighton would accept about 21 percent of its applicants.
Gaba was competing for one of 56 on-campus slots with hundreds of other applicants. He didn't get one.
But Gaba was wearing a white coat in a simulation lab last week at Creighton University Medical Center, learning about vital signs, IV lines and other factors an occupational therapist needs to know to treat hospitalized patients. He was admitted into a parallel occupational therapy track that Creighton created this year to meet the demands of the workforce and prospective students.
Gaba and his classmates watch the lectures online. They are required to live nearby, since they come to campus a couple times a week for labs along with students in the traditional program. Sometimes on weekends, Gaba and others from the online cohort get together to study.
Online classes require different focus and planning, but they are not new to Gaba. He's just glad he could get started right away on the three-year program in the school of his choice.
“I don't think I am losing anything,” he said.
Adding Gaba and 17 other students to the doctoral program through the GO (Greater Omaha) Pathway program allowed growth without adding costly lab space and instructors, said Lou Jensen, who teaches in the department and coordinates the GO Pathway program.
Officials also hope the program will provide a good option for students trying to juggle families or work with the full-time program, since labs are offered primarily at night and lectures can be watched any time.
Jensen said the framework for the hybrid program is based on one CU already operates in Alaska, where students enrolled at Creighton watch lectures online and go to an Alaska college for labs taught by Creighton adjunct faculty.
“All three of the Pathways' curriculum is identical,” Jensen said. “How they meet their learning objectives looks a little different.”
In future years, Jensen said Creighton plans to make questions about distance learning part of the application for the program, and the school hopes students who like the hybrid concept will opt in.
The hybrid model is growing increasingly popular as colleges look for ways to meet the demands of the health care industry without spending more, said Neil Harvison, chief academic and scientific affairs officer at the American Occupational Therapy Association, but hybrids at the level of Creighton's are still rare. Creighton is one of five schools with accredited doctoral programs in the nation.
“The challenge being given to the higher education community is provide more graduates from your program but don't increase the cost at the same time,” Harvison said. “The online delivery model is one of the options that will help reduce the cost.”
And if job market predictions prove true, more occupational therapy grads may be a necessity.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects much higher than average job growth, with 33 percent more occupational therapists needed by 2020. The needs of an aging population and an increase in children with special needs have boosted the outlook. The news seems to be out, Harvison said, with students applying in droves to programs in the profession.
At the College of St. Mary, a Catholic women's college in Omaha, one in four students is enrolled in the master's degree program in occupational therapy. The school has raised the admissions cap from 40 to 60 students in the last few years.
“We know there's a demand, and our students are getting jobs really easily,” said Christine Pharr, vice president for academic affairs.
Nationally, Harvison said getting a job right now is nearly certain. Occupational therapists work with such clients as children on the autism spectrum, patients recovering from illness and injury looking to re-learn everyday activities and hospice clients.
Of the accredited programs that report statistics to the American Occupational Therapy Association, 95 percent of their graduates are employed in the field within three months of graduation.
Already, there are 15 colleges planning to launch new doctoral programs in the next two years, Harvison said.
Jensen said that Creighton's hybrids will be a supplement to the traditional campus experience, and their goal will be to ensure all students, whether on-campus or online, have access to the “whole person” approach to education at Creighton.
“When we're looking at meeting the diverse needs of learners, offering other options might be better suited for some people,” Jensen said.