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OTAs, PTAs Ride Demographic Wave to New Opportunities

OTAs, PTAs Ride Demographic Wave to New Opportunities

Without even listening too closely, occupational therapist assistants (OTAs) and physical therapist assistants (PTAs) should be able to hear opportunity knocking.

"There is a huge opportunity in almost every profession that deals with the aging population due to the sheer numbers of that group," says Sandy Markwood, CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, an umbrella organization that advocates on behalf of local aging agencies.

For OTAs and PTAs willing to work with older patients, choices abound. First, a growing number of positions are available in traditional employment settings -- skilled nursing facilities, acute hospitals, acute and subacute rehabilitation centers, outpatient clinics, home healthcare, retirement communities and contract therapy providers.

But that's not all. Savvy OTAs and PTAs can craft new niches to serve the Baby Boomers as they age. The Boomers -- those 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964 -- have different expectations about aging than previous generations. They want to age well, remain productive and maintain their independence and quality of life.

OTAs: Serve the Community

"There is great opportunity for OTAs to use their skills in nontraditional areas such as community wellness and health-maintenance programs," says Pamela Toto, MS, OTR/L, FAOT, chairwoman of the American Occupational Therapy Association's (AOTA) Gerontology Special Interest Section.

OTAs can work in educational programs that teach community members how to manage and prevent strokes and diabetes, avoid falls and cope with chronic conditions, such as arthritis or low-back pain.

"OTAs have always focused on function, but now that emphasis is more in vogue," says Toto, who is board-certified in geriatrics. "We can help address issues such as community mobility, low vision, home modifications and driver rehab -- emerging practice areas, which are definitely going to increase in importance.

OTA students can prepare for their careers by targeting a practice area and focusing their academic work, volunteer experience, networking and fieldwork in that area, says Toto, an adjunct faculty member with the University of Pittsburgh's School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

Practicing OTAs can obtain AOTA specialty certification in aging-related areas such as driver rehabilitation and community mobility, environmental modification and low vision.

Medical research is another possibility. Researchers often hire OTAs to complete standardized assessments and collect data, says Toto, who serves as a data collector for a large, five-year study on arthritis.

"Research today has a greater emphasis on function and participation, which lends itself to occupational therapy," she says. To learn about research opportunities, contact local universities.

PTAs: Stay Competitive

For PTAs, the good news is that demand for their services exceeds supply. As more patients experience physical therapy and enjoy its benefits -- like quicker recovery after a joint replacement -- they're more likely to seek these services again.

"Our patient population is becoming more educated," says David Emerick Sr., a PTA and acute rehab program manager for Winchester Medical Center in Winchester, Virginia. "Older people and their younger relatives are demanding services and asking educated questions."

The bad news is that all this demand is attracting competition. Athletic trainers, exercise physiologists and massage therapists are all college-educated professionals targeting the same patients. "Everyone is jockeying to be reimbursed for physical therapy," Emerick explains. "But only two are approved right now through Medicare and Medicaid -- PTs and PTAs."

One survival strategy for PTAs: Acquire the skills to compete. Become dual-certified, perhaps as a certified athletic trainer or exercise physiologist, Emerick suggests. Get a sense of where patient volume is -- cardiology, neurology or wound care, for example -- and gain the skills to become marketable in those areas.

The American Physical Therapy Association's (APTA) advanced proficiency recognition program, launched in 2004, allows PTAs to demonstrate proficiency in one of the following areas: neuromuscular, musculoskeletal, integumentary (skin) and cardiovascular/pulmonary. These credentials demonstrate to employers that you've broadened your knowledge. PTAs can also take courses through the APTA's Section on Geriatrics.

For both OTAs and PTAs, combining transferable skills from a previous career with therapy expertise can open other doors. Using administrative skills to manage a wellness program or leveraging construction skills in a modifications consulting venture are two such examples.

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