FORT SMITH -- The Arkansas Colleges of Health Education will soon begin a new program medical providers expect to address more health care issues throughout the River Valley.
Kyle Parker, chief executive officer of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, said the institution will have a ribbon cutting and dedication for its new College of Health Sciences building Dec. 6. The building was ready in January 2020, but the event was delayed due to the covid-19 pandemic. It went live the following August.
The building will be the home of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education's School of Occupational Therapy. The three-year program, which will allow participants to earn a doctor of occupational therapy degree, will begin with its inaugural class of 36 students Jan. 6.
"This is all about trying to solve problems in our region," Parker said. "We don't create any new program that is not needed for the benefit of this state and parts of the surrounding state, a large part of Oklahoma."
Ryan Gehrig, president of Mercy Hospital Fort Smith, said multiple settings need more occupational therapy support. These include hospitals, home health, schools and outpatient, skilled nursing and inpatient rehabilitation facilities.
"For the hospital, occupational therapists are a crucial part of the multidisciplinary team approach to delivering care," Gehrig said. "Additionally, [occupational therapists] play a critical role in the transition of care process from the acute care to post-acute care setting."
Gehrig said a limited number of occupational therapy programs has created a severe workforce shortage in the River Valley and multi-state region.
Gehrig also noted the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education donated land near the College of Health Sciences building for the 50-bed inpatient Mercy Rehabilitation Hospital-Fort Smith at 6700 Chad Colley Blvd. This facility opened last summer.
"This will offer the [occupational therapy] students a convenient and state-of-the-art setting for their clinical rotations," Gehrig said. "There will be multiple care settings for the students to do their clinical rotations at Mercy and throughout the community so that they have a comprehensive and well-rounded learning experience."
LeAnn Karnes, director of rehabilitation for Baptist Health-Fort Smith and Van Buren, said her hospital is excited to work with the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education and provide clinical rotations for the occupational therapy students.
"There are shortages of occupational therapy speciality areas, such as lymphedema and hand therapy, and training in these areas would help to fill needs not only locally, but nationally," Karnes said. "The expansion of programming at ACHE should have a positive impact in this region."
Jennifer Moore, dean of the School of Occupational Therapy, said she was hired to develop the program in November 2018. The school is an entry-level doctor of occupational therapy program, meaning its graduates will be able to practice occupational therapy in any setting. The students will be eligible to sit for their national board exam and obtain occupational therapy licensure in any state where they want to work, according to Moore.
Moore said the program's curriculum design involves a teaching approach setting it apart from typical undergraduate degree programs, as well as many occupational therapy programs. This method, called context-based teaching, consists of several components, including an emphasis on authenticity in where and how students learn.
"Our classrooms, our learning spaces, are all designed to mirror actual practice," Moore said.
In addition to Mercy Rehabilitation Hospital and other resources, Moore said students will have access to what she called a "live and learn" space. This can be used to simulate a variety of settings for students in which they could practice occupational therapy in the future, both on an adult and pediatric level.
Moore argued the approach will allow students to develop the necessary skills more quickly than others.
"Therefore, when they graduate from here, they're ready the minute they graduate," Moore said.
However, the School of Occupational Therapy won't be the only feature hosted at the College of Health Sciences. Parker said the 66,000 square foot building is currently home to the institute's School of Physical Therapy, a three-year doctor program that started June 1, as well as a research facility. It also contains a physical and occupational therapy clinic serving patients who have either run out of insurance or have no insurance at no cost to them.
"All we ask is that a health care professional recommend them to us," Parker said.
The building will also serve as the location for the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education's 28-month physician assistant studies master's degree program, which is under accreditation and not yet open, according to Parker. The institute anticipates being able to open the program's doors in 2023.
Parker described all three programs that will eventually be held at the College of Health Sciences as "100% guaranteed employment."
The groundbreaking for the building was held in May 2018, according to Susan Devero, the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education's executive director of marketing, communications and community relations.
Parker said the College of Health Sciences is the second academic building to be built on the institute's campus. The first building, the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine, was completed in July 2016 and houses the institute's four-year doctor of osteopathic medicine and one-year master of science in biomedicine programs, Devero said.
The Arkansas Colleges of Health Education has a total enrollment of 694 students across its three existing programs.
Source: Susan Devero, executive director of marketing, communications and community relations for the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education