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KU’s Department of Occupational Therapy Education celebrates 75 years

January 24, 2019

By Greg Peters

Occupational Therapy skills lab
Occupational Therapy skills lab

During its 75-year history, the Department of Occupational Therapy Education at the University of Kansas Medical Center has developed a national reputation of excellence for educating its students to become therapists who provide essential assessment and support skills that empower their patients with physical or mental disabilities to engage in everyday life activities.

Occupational therapy has evolved tremendously since its early days when predominantly women taught arts and crafts to injured veterans coming home from the World Wars. Currently, occupational therapists - both men and women - are key in the rehabilitation of people suffering from injuries or illnesses. They also are vital in helping persons with developmental disabilities live purposeful lives by supporting their efforts to participate in everyday activities such as feeding and caring for themselves, going to school, holding down jobs and participating in social and leisure pursuits.

Today, KU occupational therapists of all genders can now be found performing clinical rotations in an ever-expanding array of environments worldwide. They also conduct health care-related research that might never have been considered part of an occupational therapist's role 100 years ago.

"The commitment to excellence in practice, research and community service is a common thread that runs throughout our 75 years," said Department Chair Carrie Ciro, Ph.D., FAOTA. "KU was an early adopter of occupational therapy, and the futuristic thinking of our faculty has supported continued growth in emerging practice areas."

Getting started

While the origins of occupational therapy can be traced to the ancient Greeks, the profession didn't emerge in the United States until 1917 when the National Society for Promotion of Occupational Therapy was founded. The underlying premise for the profession in those early years was that having "occupations" of daily life improves physical and mental health, while their absence leads to illness and disease.

Some 20 years later, KU's OT program arose from rather uncertain beginnings. In 1939, the Service League of Kansas City established the Therapy Center at Whittier School to provide supplies and therapy for children with disabilities, with funding coming from the Kansas Crippled Children's Commission (KCCC). The plan called for occupational therapists to work with the children at the school during the academic year, and then help these same children in the summer at area hospitals funded by KCCC.

But the plan unraveled in the fall of 1940 when the center did not reopen due to a lack of funding. Nina Crawford had been appointed as an occupational therapist at the Therapy Center earlier that year, and because at the time KU Medical Center was a state-sponsored hospital, she was able to start an occupational therapy department there. With the support of Alfred H. Hinshaw, M.D., the medical director, and Harry Wahl, M.D., the dean of the School of Medicine, the program proved so beneficial, she was eventually put on the hospital payroll.

Meanwhile, in Lawrence the academic curriculum for the occupational therapy program was established in 1940-41. Marjorie Whitney, chair of the Department of Design in the School of Fine Arts, championed the program, which was originally under the direction of the Design Department and the Medical School. The program officially opened with six students in fall 1942, was approved by the American Medical Association in 1943, and remained in the School of Fine Arts until 1978.

"Occupational Therapy was put in the School of Fine Arts because the early methods of OT practice were handicrafts, drawing, etc.," Ciro said. "This placement allowed faculty in fine arts to contribute to student knowledge of how to perform and teach specific activities. In addition to emphasizing crafts as a medium for treatment, occupational therapy students took anatomy, physiology, and courses on disease."

Early on, many considered occupational therapy as primarily a women's pursuit. A 1948 account in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy says KU's curriculum was established for two reasons: "In the first place, a great need was felt at the university for professional courses that women might enter. ... Secondly, with the shadows of war appearing, the university foresaw the tremendous need for women trained in occupational therapy."

OT comes of age

The 1960s saw dramatic change in occupational therapy. As financial reimbursement became available through Medicare and Medicaid, Ciro says KU's curriculum shifted to better reflect an industry-wide trend toward helping people learn everyday living skills. It was also a time when the number of new assistive-living technologies, such as splints to help patients hold their forks, were starting to take off.

"We have more ‘tools' in our toolkit as technology has provided more kinds of assistive or adapted devices and computer-based programs, said Kathlyn "Kitty" Reed., Ph.D., FAOTA, a 1964 KU graduate and the benefactor of an annual scholarship that bears her name. "More tools require more knowledge and more practice to apply them effectively for client needs."

In 1985, occupational therapy's bachelor's degree program in Lawrence became part of the School of Allied Health at KU Medical Center, and the program began offering an entry-level master's degree in 1999 with the first Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) class graduating in 2000.

From 1986 to 2016, Winifred Dunn, Ph.D., FOTA, chaired the department as it rose to become one of U.S. News & World Report's top public university graduate degree programs. Currently, the MOT program is rock solid admitting 42 students annually. Dunn and Reed are two of six people with KU ties among the American Occupational Therapy Association's (AOTA) "100 Most Influential People in Occupational Therapy."

The future

Photos: Occupational Therapy 75th Anniversary Celebration

To keep pace with the industry, change is inevitable. AOTA issued a statement in 2014 encouraging academic institutions to replace their MOT programs with entry-level doctorates (OTD) by 2025, in part to keep pace with other similar health care professions. The move should prove beneficial on several fronts, including growing occupational therapists' professional standing and making them key participants on interprofessional health care teams. The transition at KU Medical Center will begin this fall.

Engrained in every KU graduate is a desire to be a life-long learner. Ciro says this will be vital for occupational therapists in the future as they seek to differentiate themselves from other health care professional that provide similar services. For example, as wearable medical devices and other new technologies become an increasingly familiar part of everyday health care, occupational therapists can be on the front lines of their implementation, remembering that regardless of the technology, the patient's needs come first.

"Occupational therapy tenets will always remain the same, starting with patient-centered care," Ciro said. "While we have expertise in many areas, our relationship with the client is to facilitate their own problem-solving and empowerment to engage in the occupations that matter most to them."

Last modified: Jan 24, 2019
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