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From Mosul to Baltimore, occupational therapy alumnus seeks answers to health care's biggest challenges

Joe Otto, OTD'08, installs an apparatus to assist a patient with driving.Josef (Joe) Otto, OTD’08, knew he wanted to be an occupational therapist since high school.

Now knee-deep into his career, the Creighton alumnus has seen about as many sides of the profession as one can imagine, across a vast swath of the globe. In his current post with the United States Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps, Otto is living out his early aspiration as he works to solve public health problems and provide care to underserved populations in the United States.

The USPHS, one of seven uniformed services of the U.S., is a commissioned corps led by the surgeon general that operates under the direction of the Department of Health and Human Services. To understand Otto’s work in his current tour, it helps to look back on the rest of his career as an OT in the military.

Otto’s career kicked off in 2002, when he graduated with an undergraduate degree in occupational therapy from Ohio State University. He joined the Army and completed work rotations across several locations, from Tacoma, Wash., to Fort Hood, Texas. In April 2005, he was deployed to Mosul, Iraq, in a combat stress control unit. It was in Iraq that he had his first opportunity to really put what he learned as an OT to the test.

Joe Otto, OTD'08“We often said that our main goal was treating normal people having normal reactions to abnormal events,” Otto said. “Their reactions weren’t different than what anybody else would go through when seeing unfortunate things. We tried to treat and normalize, not pathologize.”

Otto’s journey led him next to the Air Force Reserves at the same time he was working at a Veterans Affairs hospital. Around that time, Otto decided to further his education. He had an interest in developing his skills in academia and exploring the field of occupational therapy more deeply. His search brought him to Creighton.

“Creighton was an easy choice for me,” Otto said. “They were one of the first clinical doctorates in OT, and they had amazing faculty with impressive accomplishments. At that time [in 2006], there weren’t many programs with large faculties. Whenever I’d ask someone about a clinical doctorate, the conversation quickly turned to Creighton.”

Otto graduated from Creighton with a Doctor of Occupational Therapy degree in 2008.

Enter Otto’s current venture: the USPHS. After he graduated from Creighton, Otto realized he missed the active duty side of service. In 2008, he found himself back on active duty, this time in a corps of about 7,000 health care officers, from dentists and physicians to physical and occupational therapists.

His administrative tours as a PHS officer have taken him from Gallup, N.M., to Baltimore, and have seen him at the forefront of issues such as traumatic brain injury (TBI) and quality management within the Affordable Care Act. The program Otto and his team developed at Fort Bragg for diagnosing and treating TBI, for example, became the model for care across the Department of Defense. He’s also been deployed to help with floods in Louisiana and with Hurricane Irene.

It’s fitting that the most recent chapter of his career is in the USPHS. Otto’s current role is in many ways at the intersection of occupational therapy, health care administration and service to the country. (Otto also holds an MBA in health care management from Fayetteville State University.) It’s the culmination of everything he’s learned throughout his career.

Otto credits Creighton for encouraging students to go beyond the textbooks and think about real-world applications of knowledge.

“One of the biggest things Creighton taught me was how to do research and find answers to my questions,” he said. “I was always pushed to understand problems, and was provided methods to understand how to solve them. That skillset has served me well.”

As for what’s next, Otto says he’s not sure. If there’s one thing he’s certain of, however, it’s that he hopes to continue improving the country’s health care landscape—regardless of where or how he’s doing it.

“I’m looking forward to being part of solving some challenging questions over the next few years,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in working outside of the traditional one-on-one relationship with the patient. My hope is that we can continue educating patients about their role in the health care system, and hopefully put them in a better position to take control over their own health.”


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