Central Penn College - Occupational Therapy Assistant Program Now Supporting the Central Pa. Region

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February 28, 2012 Occupational Therapy Assistant Program Now Supporting the Central Pa. Region

Clinical fieldwork agreements in development with area hospitals and clinics

SUMMERDALE, Pa., February 28, 2012 ― Central Penn College is pleased to announce a new addition to its career-focused degree offerings, an associate in applied science degree program in Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA). Available through day classes at Central Penn's Summerdale campus, it is the only OTA program supporting the Central Pa. region. The program was recently granted approval by the Pennsylvania Department of Education on February 10, and granted Developing Program Status by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) of the American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. (AOTA) on August 9, 2011. 

Central Penn's academic calendar operates on accelerated, 11-week terms, which offers students four start dates per year. However, the OTA program will enroll students biannually and limit enrollment to 15 students per term. Limited enrollment ensures there are enough healthcare facilities in the area to support the students' clinical hands-on fieldwork requirements and that students are provided with personalized instruction. The college is currently enrolling students in the OTA program for the fall term, with an application deadline of July 1. 

About the OTA Program

The OTA program is designed to prepare graduates to practice as entry-level generalist occupational therapy assistants with children, adults and the elderly in a variety of practice settings, including but not limited to hospitals, schools, mental health facilities and skilled nursing facilities. It prepares graduates to meet the eligibility requirements to take the Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant Certification Examination in Occupational Therapy (governed by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy), and to meet the requirements of those states that call for additional steps to obtain occupational therapy licensing. Once graduates pass their exam and state licensure requirements, if applicable, they will be able to practice as Certified Occupational Therapy Assistants (COTAs) to help people achieve independence and learn to live productive lives through the use of meaningful activities and life roles.

"Those interested in a career as an occupational therapy assistant think holistically about an individual's challenge-that person's daily activities and life roles, psychological state, cultural factors,  and environments that impact their abilities-in order to help them adapt," says OTA Program Director and Licensed Registered Occupational Therapist Susan Corby.  

Academic Fieldwork Coordinator and Licensed Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant Danell Frank, adds "They must be creative and think outside the box to help someone live with a new challenge or issues they may be facing."

In the program, students will learn to:

  • demonstrate a thorough understanding of human occupation throughout the lifespan and its impact upon development and health and wellness for individuals and populations of diverse cultural, socioeconomical and environmental backgrounds
  • demonstrate knowledge of the function of the human body 
  • describe and apply occupational therapy ethics, theory and models of practice
  • administer treatments, assessments and screenings using appropriate procedures and protocols under the direction of an occupational therapist 

Economic Outlook

"As a result of ongoing demographic and economic research, we discovered a very real need for occupational therapy assistants in this region and beyond," says Dr. Melissa Vayda, vice president & CAO. "Part of Central Penn's mission is to provide an education that prepares its graduates to obtain employment or advancement in their chosen field, so to achieve this goal we must offer the degrees in demand by employers, like occupational therapy assistant."

This is the first new degree program Central Penn has added to its academic degree program list since 2007. Annual assessment of degree programs and workforce conditions also has led to the elimination of three degree programs in the past five years.

The "2010 Occupational Therapy Compensation and Workforce Study" conducted by the AOTA finds that the great majority of nationwide survey respondents, 86 percent, identified themselves as OTRs, leaving 14 percent, or 1,384 people, as COTAs. The baseline demographics study also found that 79 percent of COTAs are more than 30 years old, with the largest percentage, 28.9 percent, being in the 50 to 59 age group.

"The aging COTA practitioner population, coupled with the number of COTAs continuing their education to become practicing Registered Occupational Therapists (OTRs), has left a gap with not enough COTAs to fill it," says Corby. "This industry trend is very concerning because it's changing the face of the occupational therapy practice."

The rising average age of the Pennsylvania workforce reflects these findings. The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry's "Workforce 2012 Demographics" publication shows that fewer workers in the prime working age group (35-49), will "necessitate a focus of Pennsylvania's employers on the recruitment of younger workers and the retention of their older, experienced employees."

Currently, there are ten programs within Pennsylvania accredited by ACOTE that award occupational therapy assistant degrees, with none supporting the Central Pa. region. 

"There are multi-year waiting lists for applicants to many of these programs," says Corby. "The addition of Central Penn's OTA program to the region not only opens doors for those students waiting for admission to an OTA program, but it also provides a workforce pipeline for area hospitals, clinics and agencies."

"An OTA program in the Harrisburg area will improve the medical community's access to occupational therapy practitioners," says Tracy Nornhold, M.Ed., OTR/L, occupational therapy clinical specialist of education for Pinnacle Health System, one of Central Penn's fieldwork site partners. "Currently, the closest OTA program is more than an hour away. The creation of Central Penn's program allows for the training of potential occupational therapy practitioners from the Harrisburg area, many of whom may not have had the opportunity otherwise."

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of occupational therapy assistants and aides is expected to grow by 30 percent from 2008 to 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations. The BLS indicates that job prospects should be very good for occupational therapy assistants for a variety of reasons, including the aging population, the increasing number of individuals with physical challenges or limited function, and increasing demand from adolescents due to the expansion of the school-age population and Federal legislation mandating funding for education for the physically challenged.

Considered a "Bright Outlook" occupation on the Occupational Information Network (O*NET) online database, an interactive application for exploring and searching occupations, the O*NET online database indicates that the career of occupational therapy assistant is expected to "grow rapidly in the next several years."

The college is currently in the process of contacting the more than 120 facilities-healthcare organizations, businesses and corporate contractors-that verbally agreed to serve as fieldwork sites for students' Level I and II clinical fieldwork requirements. Level I fieldwork consists of half- to full-day observations in various clinical settings for a total of 16 hours in each practice setting. Level II fieldwork consists of 16 weeks of "internship" in traditional and emerging occupational therapy practice settings. The OTRs and COTAs who provide clinical supervision to Central Penn students are awarded hours toward their professional development units to satisfy their re-certification requirements.

"Pinnacle Health System's occupational therapy department is looking forward to a long working relationship with Central Penn College as we assist in educating future OT assistants," says Nornhold.

In addition to teaming up with fieldwork sites, Central Penn is developing a collaborative fieldwork agreement with Elizabethtown College. Elizabethtown offers a program that awards both a bachelor's degree in health and occupation and a master's degree in occupational therapy. Central Penn's agreement with Elizabethtown will allow Central Penn students who study to become practicing COTAs, and Elizabethtown College students who study to become practicing OTRs, to work together under the supervision of certified professionals. Through their interactions, the students will develop a better understanding of the collaborative process that occurs between OTRs and COTAs in clinical practices. Central Penn and Elizabethtown aim to secure fieldwork sites that allow the students to provide service to the community.

Admissions Criteria and Curriculum

Similar to the physical therapist assisting program at Central Penn, the OTA program has enhanced admissions criteria, including required observation hours, background checks, reference forms and an in-person interview. As part of Central Penn's professional appearance policy, students will be expected to wear the industry standard uniforms worn by COTAs. Students who enroll full time and complete and pass every course required for graduation will graduate in seven terms, which is about 21 months.

The new OTA laboratory, located in Bollinger Hall, is a simulated home environment, including fully-functional kitchen and laundry facilities, a bed, toilet and bathtub. Training with adaptive equipment items that COTAs use to help individuals with daily self-care routines is built into the curriculum, including but not limited to training with grab bars, raised toilet seats and tub transfer benches. Students will also be exposed to modalities that they will encounter in the workforce, such as splinting and fluidotherapy. 

Students will learn pediatric treatment interventions based on sensory integration, developmental activities and self care. Mental health is covered so students can conduct group activities and learn about relaxation and coping strategies, time and stress management and self expression.

"Students will analyze activities that individuals would engage in from infancy to geriatrics," says Frank. "They will develop skills with individuals who are physically challenged, and work with modalities they would encounter in an occupational therapy clinic, such as dressing and bathing adaptive equipment, as well as techniques to improve patients' daily living.".

Central Penn began the process of applying for approval for the OTA program in November 2009. As part of the approval process for ACOTE and the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the following steps had to be taken: hiring of a full-time program director; design of a curriculum that meets the ACOTE mission and philosophy; and meeting of administrative and program standards in terms of staffing, office space and hands-on laboratory space. On top of Central Penn's regional accreditation by the Middle States Association of Higher Education, the specialized ACOTE accreditation will add another level of rigor and accountability to the program and its students. A scheduled sequence of events leads to full ACOTE accreditation. Now in self study mode, Central Penn's OTA program is slated for accreditation in August 2014. This is when the first class of OTA students should be concluding fieldwork.

Visit www.centralpenn.edu to learn more about the occupational therapy assistant degree program at Central Penn College and visit www.aota.org for more information about the profession. Central Penn also offers healthcare-related associate degree programs in physical therapist assistant and medical assisting and a bachelor's degree in business administration with a healthcare administration concentration.

OTA Program Faculty & Staff

Similar to how a COTA works under the direction of an OTR in the industry; a COTA and OTR duo make up the Central Penn College OTA team.

Program Director Susan Corby was welcomed to the Central Penn family on March 21, 2011. Corby holds more than 30 years of experience in different field settings as a COTA and OTR. Beginning as a COTA in 1982 and becoming an OTR/L in 1988, she has worked in nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, home health care agencies, hospitals and medical centers. She specializes in hand therapy, physical rehabilitation and mental health, and has served in managerial roles and taught as a part-time instructor in the occupational therapy assistant program at Penn State Berks.

Corby has served as an item writer and reviewer for the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy examination for COTAs since 2007. She has also served as an item writing team leader for the OTR certification examination.

At Central Penn, Corby is primarily responsible for management and administration of the program, including instructing, planning, evaluation, budgeting, selection of faculty and staff, maintenance of accreditation, and commitment to strategies for professional development. 

"I always wanted to work in clinical education by helping students and educating future occupational therapy assistants," says Corby. "Being involved in developing this program from the bottom up has been very fulfilling."

A graduate of Lehigh Carbon Community College for an associate degree in occupational therapy and College Misericordia for a bachelor's degree in occupational therapy/minor in psychology, Corby is currently pursuing her doctoral degree in occupational therapy at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pa. She resides in Cressona, Pa.

Academic Fieldwork Coordinator Danell Frank started at Central Penn on December 5, 2011. She is a licensed certified occupational therapy assistant. Prior to working at the college, Frank worked at Holy Spirit Hospital for more than 13 years as a COTA/L. She still practices at the hospital every other weekend, and has a strong background in acute care, geriatric, cerebrovascular accident and orthopedic rehabilitation. At Central Penn, Frank is responsible for the creation and facilitation of the clinical fieldwork program.

"This new position is exciting because I can start from scratch to set up the students' fieldwork manual, and transfer the knowledge I have gained as a COTA to our students who aspire to become one," says Frank.

Frank earned her associate degree in occupational therapy assistant at Mount Aloysius College and is continuing her education at Central Penn for a bachelor's degree in business administration with a concentration in healthcare administration. 


Central Penn College has been helping students turn potential into career success since 1881, offering bachelor's and associate degrees in the fields of accounting, business administration, criminal justice, information technology, communications, healthcare, homeland security and legal studies. The College, currently serving students at its Harrisburg, Lancaster and Lehigh Valley locations, attributes its high rate of student success to a caring faculty and its hands-on learning approach. Based on Central Penn's most recent One-Year Graduate Survey, 83.7 percent of graduates were employed in their chosen field or continuing their education within one year of graduation. Central Penn College is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (267-284-5000). The Middle States Commission on Higher Education is an institutional accrediting agency recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. www.centralpenn.edu

The Occupational Therapy Assistant program has applied for accreditation and has been granted Developing Program Status by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education (ACOTE) of the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), located at 4720 Montgomery Lane, P.O. Box 31220, Bethesda, MD 20824-1220. ACOTE's telephone number c/o AOTA is (301) 652-AOTA.

What is an Occupational Therapy Assistant?

According to the American Occupational Therapy Association...

"In its simplest terms, occupational therapists and occupational therapy assistants help people across the lifespan participate in the things they want and need to do through the therapeutic use of everyday activities (occupations). Common occupational therapy interventions include helping children with disabilities to participate fully in school and social situations, helping people recovering from injury to regain skills, and providing supports for older adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes."1 

"Young or old, we all have a job to do-the job of living. Learning, growing, playing, working, managing our homes, and caring for our families are among the "occupations" of life. Unfortunately, physical, emotional, or other challenges often prevent people from fully participating in the job of living. Disease, injury, depression, or developmental problems can make it difficult for people to do everyday tasks for be active and independent. Occupational therapy-a vibrant, growing profession makes it possible for people to achieve independence and to enjoy life to its fullest."2 

1.The American Occupational Therapy Association, "About Occupational Therapy." http://www.aota.org/Consumers.aspx (accessed February 22, 2012).

2.The American Occupational Therapy Association, "Your Career in Occupational Therapy." http://www.aota.org/Educate/EdRes/StuRecruit/Intro/38385.aspx?FT=.pdf (accessed February 22, 2012).