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Pilot Project Addresses Alaska’s Health Provider Shortage

Pilot Project Addresses Alaska’s Health Provider Shortage

Creighton University, a Jesuit, Catholic university in Omaha, will launch a distance-learning program in August that is aimed at addressing the state of Alaska’s critical shortage of occupational therapists.

The pilot program – the first of its kind – partners Creighton with the University of Alaska at Anchorage (UAA). Eight students will participate in the inaugural class.

“If successful, it could serve as a national model for addressing shortages of health care professionals in Alaska as well as other rural and underserved areas in the United States and worldwide,” said J. Chris Bradberry, Pharm.D., dean of the Creighton School of Pharmacy and Health Professions.

The students will gather for the first time on Monday, Aug. 11, on the UAA campus to begin their nine-semester journey to doctoral degrees in occupational therapy. They won’t step foot on the Creighton campus until graduation day.

During a four-day orientation, they will meet with a team of Creighton faculty, staff and advisers and, among other things, learn about school policies and procedures as well as the University’s Jesuit mission and identity. They will be issued computers and software, complete training in distance-learning technology, and participate in a professionalism ceremony during which they will be issued white lab coats.

Subsequent classes, lectures and course work will be available online to students at their preferred times and locations. Creighton will hire adjunct professors to oversee lab clinics on the Anchorage campus as well as a full-time program coordinator based at UAA.

“Our goal is to create a learning environment, in collaboration with University of Alaska at Anchorage, that mirrors, as closely as possible, what the students would experience on Creighton’s campus,” said Brenda Coppard, Ph.D., Creighton chair of occupational therapy.

The unlikely partnership between a Jesuit, Catholic university in the Midwest and Alaska’s flagship university came about after Alfred Bracciano, Ed.D., Creighton associate professor of occupational therapy, discussed the idea with Cheryl Easley, Ph.D., dean of UAA’s College of Health and Social Welfare. Bracciano and Easley know each other as a result of a previous affiliation at another university.

Creighton, which has offered the only accredited distance-pathway degree for doctor of pharmacy candidates since 2001, wanted to adapt that successful model for other health professions. UAA and Easley wanted to address the Alaska’s growing shortage of health care professionals.

In Alaska, students must attend out-of-state schools to earn degrees in such fields as occupational therapy, physical therapy and pharmacy, Easley noted. And, once they leave Alaska, they often do not return upon graduation.

“This partnership responds to the lack of educational opportunity for occupational therapists in Alaska and the shortage of OTs available to practice in this state,” Easley said. “The distance- delivered program that Creighton offers increases the likelihood that the graduates will remain in Alaska to work.”

Bracciano noted that a 2007 study by the Alaska Center for Rural Health determined that Alaska faces a “perfect storm” in its struggle to meet the health needs of its residents, due to an aging population, a lack of health professionals, and the state’s unique geography.

The report listed shortages in many health care fields, including nursing, dentistry and medicine. However, the area which had the greatest need and shortage was in the field of rehabilitation, specifically in occupational therapy, he said.