ECU to offer North Carolina public universities’ only Doctor of Occupational Therapy program

East Carolina University’s College of Allied Health Sciences is set to offer a doctoral degree program in occupational therapy — the first at any public university in the state.

“As a comprehensive college of allied health professions, we are delighted to provide the only Doctor of Occupational Therapy program at a public university in North Carolina,” said Dr. Robert Orlikoff, dean of the College of Allied Health Sciences. “Occupational therapy is a diverse field that enables those with disabilities to engage in the activities of daily living, which improves quality of life in so many ways. This doctoral program will allow us to not only provide our OT students with a greater depth of knowledge and an expanded skillset, but to prepare the next generation of leaders in this important discipline.”

Occupational therapy uses assessment and intervention to assist people who live with physical, sensory or cognitive challenges, aiming to help them regain independence in all areas of their lives and address barriers that affect their emotional, social and physical needs.

ECU currently offers a master’s degree in occupational therapy; the entry-level doctoral degree will add another option for students pursuing graduate work in the discipline. Both programs will include the intensive hands-on clinical experience that is a hallmark of ECU’s occupational therapy instruction.

The Doctor of Occupational Therapy program is built upon entry-level skills developed at the master’s level, to produce leaders of innovative practice in the unique rural environment of eastern North Carolina. In collaboration with faculty members actively engaged in evidence-based and innovative community programs, the OTD students will successfully gain advanced skills as practitioners, researchers and educators.

Students who enter ECU’s fall 2023 occupational therapy program will be the first cohort to have the opportunity to apply for the OTD program. Applications to the programs are being accepted through Oct. 15, 2022.

“Our OTD program is unique in several ways. First and foremost, students admitted to the program will gain knowledge of occupational therapy before the necessity of deciding whether they want to pursue a master’s degree or a doctoral degree,” said Dr. Denise Donica, professor and chair of the Department of Occupational Therapy. “Our unique design gives students the opportunity to make that decision once admitted into the program instead of before. Their choice will be validated by a year of experience in the program and regular interactions with supportive faculty members who will assist students in determining which program aligns with their professional and personal goals.”

Students will learn in state-of-the-art classrooms and simulation labs in ECU’s Health Sciences Building. The simulation areas feature true-to-life kitchen, household, living and bedroom space where students get real-world experience practicing therapy with faculty, other students and standardized patients — university employees and community members who act as patients to allow students to learn and apply techniques and practice providing therapy in a safe space.

Students in both programs will also gain experience working with clients in the community through community resources which may include the Boys and Girls Clubs and the Pitt County Council on Aging, where they practice skills they learned in the classroom and provide services and resources to the community.

Dr. Heather Panczykowski, assistant professor of occupational therapy, and student Jill Donaldson work with a client at the Pitt County Council on Aging in Bethel, N.C.

Dr. Heather Panczykowski, assistant professor of occupational therapy, and student Jill Donaldson work with a client at the Pitt County Council on Aging in Bethel, N.C. (Photo by Rhett Butler)

“Both programs will be infused with experiential learning opportunities for the students in the local community where residents will benefit,” Donica said. “We also anticipate an increased clinical presence through the development of a student-run clinic. Finally, the OTD students will design and implement capstone experiences, partnering with community organizations for projects in innovative practice, program development, research, and/or education. I think this is a great opportunity for our students and our region.”

The entry-level OTD program has applied for accreditation by the Accreditation Council for Occupational Therapy Education, of the American Occupational Therapy Association. The OTD program must be granted accreditation status before its graduates will be eligible to sit for the national certification examination for the occupational therapist administered by the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy.

The college began the process to get the doctoral degree approved in 2017, when the Accreditation Council of Occupational Therapy Education mandated the transition to an entry-level doctorate and elimination of the master’s degree. About a year later, that decision was overturned by the American Occupational Therapy Association; students can earn either a master’s or a doctorate in occupational therapy to be eligible to sit for the national certification exam and become a licensed occupational therapist.

“After this decision was made, our faculty discussed what our response would be and we decided we wanted to offer both degrees, maximizing our current resources and meeting the diverse needs of prospective students” Donica said.

The addition of the doctoral degree, Donica said, shows the commitment of the College of Allied Health Sciences to the profession of occupational therapy.

“It speaks to our persistence in getting the degree approved and the apparent value that the state perceives we bring to potential students as well as the citizens of North Carolina,” Donica said. “We envision a future in which our graduates transform clients’ lives through the power of occupations to promote health and well-being.”