Occupational therapists in demand as U.S. ages

November 23, 1992|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

When Kim Hartmann was in high school, she spent summers as a volunteer at a home for the elderly in Windsor, Conn.

And that was when Ms. Hartmann, chairwoman of the occupational therapy department of Quinnipiac College in Hamden, Conn., decided to become an occupational therapist.

"The therapists helped the people become self-sufficient and independent by involving them in things they care about -- such as assisting at a child-care center and telling their life stories to high school students," said Ms. Hartmann, a graduate of Quinnipiac's four-year undergraduate program.

Occupational therapists work with people with mental, physical, developmental or emotional disabilities. They help them relearn day-to-day skills or compensate for them.

Treatment ranges from teaching patients how to tie their shoelaces or brush their teeth to using wheelchairs to help them increase mobility and computer equipment to help them communicate.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports there were 36,000 occupational therapists in 1990. They work in hospitals, schools, home health care situations and private practice. The median annual salary is $30,500; consultants in private practice make $25 to $200 an hour.

Even in a slow economy, occupational therapists are in demand for a number of reasons. The U.S. population is getting older, and new medical technology makes it possible for patients with critical problems to survive -- but still need extensive therapy. Also, many patients are being discharged early from hospitals to avoid high hospitalization costs but still need rehabilitation afterward.

The federal government says jobs for these professionals are "expected to increase much faster than the average for all occupations in this decade"; 16,000 jobs are expected to open for occupational therapists in the next 10 years.

In 1977, when Ms. Hartmann got her first paying job at a local hospital, her salary was $19,000 a year.Today, graduates of Quinnipiac's program start at $34,000 to $42,000 a year. They often also get a signing bonus of as much as $3,000.

"The job outlook is absolutely wonderful," Ms. Hartmann said.

Another reason for the demand for therapists is that businesses need help to meet requirements of the 1992 Americans with Disabilities Act, she says.

Quinnipiac will graduate 75 students in 1993 and 100 in 1994. All graduates get jobs, Ms. Hartmann says. The curriculum includes psychology, biology, chemistry, physics and child development. Six months of internships are necessary for accreditation, but Quinnipiac, which is affiliated with 350 hospitals nationwide, requires nine months.

The work is physically demanding and emotionally draining, but the payoff is enormous, Ms. Hartmann says.

"I worked with the family of a 1-year-old named Ashley who had a rare muscular disease that impeded her breathing," she said. "My job was to help the family prepare for her death. The physicians said she had no thinking ability and could not move."

But Ms. Hartmann noticed every time she asked the family a question, Ashley seemed to be listening. "I had a gut-level feeling that she was alert and got the physicians to allow me to work with her," Ms. Hartmann said.

After months of occupational therapy, Ashley could answer questions by blinking her eyes, got better physically and was sent home. Ms. Hartmann continued to work with her.

"Ashley's now 9 years old, in a wheelchair, goes to public school and communicates through a computer," said Ms. Hartmann. "When I see her in a total child environment, instead of in a hospital and on life support systems, it makes my entire career worthwhile."

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