Students practice different techniques for working with patients challenged by mobility issues in this mobility lab lesson. (Photo was taken before COVID-19.)

Move it or lose it

February 2, 2021 | Health

For Cornelia McAvoy, the biggest takeaway from the Physical Therapist Assistant and Occupational Therapist Assistant (PTA/ OTA) program at MacEwan University was learning the importance of movement.

"If you don't move, you don't get better," says McAvoy, who graduated in 2015.

Mobility is the foundation for recovery from injuries and problems associated with inactivity. Physiotherapy came into prominence during the polio epidemic in the early 1950s when medical staff began to discover that by making patients move, their healing progressed much quicker than if they had remained in bed. That principal drives the practice today.

MacEwan's two-year Therapist Assistant program promotes just that. Students gain the knowledge, skills and practical experience to assist therapists and help their patients by using physical therapy or occupational therapy, or a combination of both depending on where they are hired.

Though the two are rehabilitative health practices with many similarities, physical therapy involves the use of specially designed exercises and equipment to help patients regain or improve their physical abilities. Occupational therapy focuses on both mental and physical health rehabilitation and may involve adapting some element of a person's environment.

Graduates of the program have gone on to help in the areas of pediatrics, geriatrics, medicine, rehabilitation, mental health and in school systems. As an occupational therapist assistant, they may make splints in a hand therapy unit, aid in stabilizing a patient's neck when being fitted for a neck collar, and assist Parkinson's patients in an outpatient setting. As a physical therapist assistant working in acute care, grads may be mobilizing post-surgical patients, or in an outpatient department helping patients with musculoskeletal injuries, rheumatological issues or joint replacements; or they may work in a private clinic setting.

McAvoy came to the program when she decided she needed a new career and she wanted to work with and help people. "One of the things I love about my job as a PTA/OTA is collaborating with my team to determine what needs to be done for our patients," she says.

Recognized by the Occupational Therapist Assistant and Physiotherapist Assistant Education Accreditation Program in collaboration with Physiotherapy Education Accreditation Canada and the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists, the program offers field placement opportunities to help students find their niche in a field that serves patients ranging from toddlers to the elderly, and put to use the skills and professionalism they gain through the program.

"Programs such as the PTA/OTA diploma deliver a valuable mix of employability and future career options," says Darren Tellier, MacEwan's department chair of Allied Health and Human Performance. "With the two-year diploma, graduates can readily gain employment or pursue further studies in physiotherapy or occupational therapy."

After graduating from the program in 2016, Hyemi Huh now works as a PTA/OTA at the Grey Nuns Hospital while continuing her studies with a master's degree in occupational therapy. Huh still frequently reflects back on her MacEwan education to apply lessons that she can use in her everyday work.

"The courses gave me a foundation — most of what I learned can be applied directly in the field," she says. "I learned how to work with patients and how to address their different strengths and conditions through in-class exercises, and those exercises made it very practical for me."

Faculty members, like Jacqui Hunt, understand the importance of those practical applications and experience in the field. Hunt has 40 years' experience in physical therapy at the Grey Nuns Hospital, during which time she also worked in a private physiotherapy clinic for 20 years.

"Our program does two things," says Hunt. "It prepares students to go out and be really important, helpful members of a health-care team and it prepares them to continue on with their education."

Faculty members model and promote healthy living, and recommend prospective students be in good health, have an interest in wellness and an eagerness to help people recover from injuries or illnesses. Once enrolled in the program, students are encouraged to keep themselves healthy to be able to meet the challenge of a physically demanding job.

"I love being a PTA/OTA because I love getting to work with people," says McAvoy, "and I love the challenge of inspiring and motivating people to reach their physical goals."


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