U master’s in occupational therapy program suspended, future uncertain

The importance and priority of University health programs are in question.

by Naomi Scott

Senior Alexia Crewson created her own major at the University so she would be ready to enter the occupational therapy master’s program in the fall.

But in September, Crewson said, a professor in the department contacted her and said enrollment in the program would be suspended starting in the fall.

“I was devastated,” Crewson said. “I still want to be a part of that program so bad.”

Along with occupational therapy, the University’s medical technology program is a Medical School program facing an uncertain future. Their faculty members, enrolled students and prospective students worry about the programs’ fates. Their plight has also attracted the attention of state Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who proposed a bill earlier this month to give the programs state funding.

Occupational therapy

Peggy Martin, director of the occupational therapy program at the University, said that in September, Medical School Dean Deborah Powell formally directed her to stop recruiting and accepting students for the occupational therapy class starting fall 2005.

Occupational therapists use self-care, work and recreational activities to help people with disabilities become more functional and independent.

Powell said cuts in state funding forced the Medical School to reassess all its programs.

She said one reason occupational therapy was singled out rather than a program such as physical therapy is the latter program brings in a significant amount of research dollars.

“Physical therapy has a very integrated research program that brings in several million dollars per year,” she said.

Martin said that because the University’s primary goal is to be a leading research institution, it focuses attention on more profitable research projects, such as those carried out at the Stem Cell Institute and the genetics department.

“Occupational therapy illustrates the tension around what the University will sacrifice in order to attain its top research standing,” she said.

Martin said she was told the program was also targeted because it does not align with the Medical School’s mission to educate future physicians.

An occupational therapy program at the University is important, because there is a nationwide and statewide shortage of workers in the field, Martin said.

She said Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development predicts jobs in occupational therapy in the state will increase by 31.4 percent through 2010.

“Proportionately, we’re at the beginning of a huge workforce shortage,” she said.

Now that Crewson’s plans to attend the University’s occupational therapy program are on hold, she is taking a year off to decide what she is going to do.

She said the only other occupational therapy programs in the state, at the College of St. Catherine and College of St. Scholastica, are private and difficult for her to afford.

She said she thinks the Medical School is “minimizing” everyone’s role in the medical field by focusing too much on physicians. But everyone’s role is important, including occupational therapists, Crewson said.

“Them slashing occupational therapy is like them saying doctors are the most important part of the medical model,” she said.

Elizabeth Welle, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said that she planned on entering the University of Minnesota’s occupational therapy program in fall 2006.

After working at an assisted-living home during college, Welle said, she realized occupational therapy was the career for her.

Welle said working with different age ranges of people in different settings, such as hospitals and homes, appealed to her.

“I just love how many things you can do,” she said. “You can work with them singularly and find out what works best for them.

“It’s such a neat profession.”

Welle said she worked with a University of Minnesota professor for two years to make certain her prerequisite course worked for the University of Minnesota’s occupational therapy program. But she said she “saw (her) plans shattered” when she heard the future of the program was uncertain.

Applying to new schools has been a “panicky” experience, she said. The Fergus Falls, Minn., native said, “I really don’t want to go further from home.”

Medical technology

Donna Spannaus-Martin, the medical technology program director, said no one has officially talked to her about the closing of the medical technology program at the University of Minnesota.

But she said she has heard Frank Cerra, the Academic Health Center senior vice president, say the allied health programs, including medical technology and occupational therapy, are not part of the core mission of the University of Minnesota and should be moved to another university, possibly a school in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

Spannaus-Martin said the cost of the medical technology program, which trains students to become laboratory technologists, is one reason the program is being reviewed.

The University of Minnesota’s medical technology program is the largest in the country, with 37 students expected to graduate in spring, she said.

In a state that needs approximately 200 new laboratory technologists each year, the University of Minnesota plays an important role in training future medical technology workers, Spannaus-Martin said.

Also, the University’s medical technology program has the highest percentage of minority students of any Academic Health Center program, she said.

Minority students who have graduated from the medical technology program at the University of Minnesota have helped recruit other new minority students. As a result, students from nine countries, including Kenya, Somalia and the Ukraine, are in the program, Spannaus-Martin said.

“The undergraduate program is how these students get started in health-care professions,” she said. “We need to keep the program here to keep diversity.”

Chelsea Wallace, a University of Minnesota senior and Medical Technology Student Council president, said she is concerned people don’t know how significant the field of medical technology is.

“The profession is really important, but it’s not really well-known right now,” she said. “Anywhere between 80 (percent) to 90 percent of medical decisions made by doctors are made as a result of laboratory tests.”

Spannaus-Martin said laboratory technologists do everything from determining which organisms cause infections, to looking at blood slides for cancerous cells, to testing blood for cholesterol and sugar levels.

Wallace said she is concerned about the direction the University of Minnesota is going.

“Really, their first priority should be to educate people – to fill the jobs in the state,” she said. “Right now, it seems like the University (of Minnesota) is shifting their priority to research over education.”

Legislative, University action

On March 1, Marty introduced a bill to the Senate Higher Education Committee that would divert money from the state’s general fund to the University of Minnesota’s occupational therapy and medical technology programs for the next two years.

The bill is designed to keep the University of Minnesota from cutting back these programs until the Legislature can figure out how to deal with needs in the state, Marty said.

“We don’t want to have them shut down right now,” he said. “Occupational therapy is not accepting people next year – that’s not a good way to run a program.”

Marty said that since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when laboratory technologists were needed to detect diseases such as smallpox and anthrax, there has been an urgent need for them.

“The University (of Minnesota) is cutting back when we need to be expanding,” Marty said. “We as a society don’t pay enough attention to the allied health professions.

“I’m hopeful the University (of Minnesota) will, even without this (bill), keep these programs open.”

Meanwhile, Mary Koppel, assistant vice president for Academic Health Center public affairs, said Cerra put together an allied-health task force that is considering changing how coursework in the medical technology program is administered.

The task force is considering a newer education model for the program, which would offer more coursework online, Koppel said.

Because it does not offer online coursework as other medical technology programs do, Koppel called the University of Minnesota’s medical technology program “an inefficient, ineffective model of education.”

Powell said the Medical School hasn’t made any decisions about the future of the program.

“We haven’t asked medical technology to suspend enrollment,” she said. “I don’t know what they’re going to the Legislature about.

“It surprised me.”

Koppel said the University of Minnesota is looking to move the occupational therapy program to a different department.

“None of these are happy decisions to make,” Koppel said.