With only 1,200 licensed occupational therapists for a state with a population of 3.2 million residents, Nevada is faced with a healthcare workforce shortage. It’s a problem that Donna Costa is well aware of after working for nearly five decades in the occupational therapy field. Costa, the founding director of UNLV's occupational therapy program, says addressing the workforce shortage is what drove her to start the program at UNLV.
“Building up our occupational therapy workforce to meet the needs of Nevada residents is our next step in bolstering the state’s healthcare infrastructure,” she says. “Occupational therapy tends to be an unknown profession, but we fill a critical role in the healthcare continuum.”
UNLV’s innovative three-year doctoral program in occupational therapy is housed within the School of Integrated Health's department of brain health, which focuses on neurodegenerative disease, neuropsychology, and occupational therapy across the life span.
What is a Doctorate of Occupational Therapy?
Most have heard the term, but Costa says those outside of the medical field don’t understand exactly what occupational therapy is and how it can offer a path for someone interested in a career helping improve the lives of others. That’s due in part to the wide scope of the profession.
Those who graduate with a doctorate in occupational therapy address their patients’ physical, mental, and emotional conditions to help them function more effectively in their daily lives. This can entail reeducating a patient on performing routine activities such as cooking, cleaning, and dressing. The post-professional doctoral degree in occupational therapy will help graduates to develop advanced skills for leadership positions, practice, management, and education.
The curriculum for UNLV's occupational therapy doctoral program also includes a strong focus on the mental health of adults and children, addressing another high-need area for Nevada: mental health practitioners.
“Many people with psychiatric illness have cognitive deficits, and we try to remedy that,” explains Costa. “In mental health, what we’re doing is trying to increase people’s level of functioning, whether that’s with learning how to balance a checkbook or how to navigate their communities and accessing the resources around them. We also teach people how to regulate their emotions, and how to improve their social skills.”
What's the Job Outlook for a Doctor of Occupational Therapy?
Occupational therapy is projected to grow much faster than other industries in the next 10 years, with over 18,600 jobs being created nationwide and a median salary of $85,570, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Outlook Handbook.
Closer to home, UNLV’s Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) predicts that healthcare and social assistance will be the second largest source of employment in Southern Nevada by 2025. As Nevada’s population continues to grow, so too will the demand for these much-needed experts.
- No GRE/MCAT
- Bachelor's degree from any field (minimum 3.0 GPA)
- 40 hours of observation with a licensed occupational therapist
A Dynamic and Diverse Field
The backgrounds of students in the UNLV occupational therapy program are as diverse as the profession itself. Students often integrate their professional interests into their capstone projects. This culminating project requires the students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they acquired through the doctoral program's classroom and fieldwork.
Nico Pierides, a third-year occupational therapy doctorate student, combined his fieldwork doing hand therapy at a local outpatient clinic with his past as a serious gamer to create an ergonomic protocol for UNLV’s esports teams. The guidelines in his protocol will help esports players optimize their performance and prevent injuries.
The protocols in Pierides’ capstone project, while specific to esports players, reflect a core theme to the occupational therapy field. “The challenge, but also the beauty of OT is trying to find ways to make an intervention more meaningful to the patient,” says Pierides. “You have to figure out ways to treat your patient and find what works for them. That's why I loved my fieldwork because I got to experience working with patients, and I never used the same thing for every patient. I never had a cookie cutter treatment.”
What Makes UNLV's Occupational Therapy Doctorate Unique?
Networking, networking, networking! Pierides will graduate summer 2023, but he, like many students enrolled in the occupational therapy program, has already received two job offers (and counting).
With over 100 healthcare-related employers in Nevada connected to UNLV’s program, students like Pierides have a wide range of specialties to choose for their fieldwork experiences. “You could look at 10 OTs, and see them doing 10 different things," says Costa. "There’s so much diversity and creativity available to students who are pursuing the field.
Thanks to the program’s workforce-ready curriculum, she says, students graduate with the skills and network to work as a direct care provider, consultant, educator, manager, leader, researcher, or even an advocate for the profession and the consumer in diverse industries.
In addition to multiple networking opportunities, UNLV students are also able to hone their vital skills in an environment with an unconventional twist — by learning patient care in a "real home setting."
Headquartered in a real home within the Las Vegas Medical District, the house features a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and laundry area. Students are able to have the unique experience of learning what it's like to help patients in realistic scenarios, such as moving safely from a bed to the shower or using adaptive utensils necessary for cooking.
“When we first set up the program, I said we need a living environment, not a typical university lab,” says Costa. “The house is perfect for that. It simulates an actual living environment that a patient might be in.”
The home also features a pediatric mobility lab, where students learn how to use a colorful ball pit to tune up a child’s sensory system. And on the other side of the home, a driving simulation system tests a patient’s reaction time to see if they’re ready to get back on the road.
“When you work with people, and you teach them something, and they’re able to take that and apply it to their own life — whether that’s helping them get a job, or they’re able to resume driving, or they’re able to finally get up out of bed — these are major breakthroughs,” says Costa. “We give people back their lives, which is incredibly gratifying.”
UNLV's occupational therapy program is accredited by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education of the American Occupational Therapy Association. Students who graduate from the program are eligible to take the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) exam after successfully completing all their coursework and fieldwork.
For more information, email the UNLV occupational therapy program or call 702-895-1811.