First OTD Cohort is Focused on Occupational Justice


One of the key threads of SAU's Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) program is its focus on occupational justice: making sure people of all abilities have access to supports and resources so they can live a life of meaning with as much independence as possible.

As the inaugural cohort of 31 OTD students prepares to graduate, they already have become advocates for occupational justice. Through research, presentations and doctoral capstone projects, this cohort is informing healthcare professionals here and across the world.

On Saturday, the OTD candidates will walk at the 2019 St. Ambrose University Spring Commencement Ceremony.

The university launched the doctoral program in the fall of 2016, building on its long-established track record of Occupational Therapy education at St. Ambrose. A key OTD change from the Master-level program was the addition of a doctoral capstone project.

"This graduating class has been doing fantastic work at all levels - local, regional and national, and even internationally," said OTD Program Director and Professor Lynn Kilburg. DHSc, OTR/L. "The hallmark of an entry doctoral program in OT is the emphasis on advanced knowledge and skill in a focused area selected by the student and mentored by faculty. At St. Ambrose, the OTD program further encourages that emphasis to focus on occupational justice," Kilburg said.

"Whether you are an older adult with a complex medical condition wanting to age in place, or school-aged child with a disability wanting to participate with your peers, we all should have access to the supports and resources to be able to do the things we want to do," she said.

The OTD cohort has carried its focus on occupational justice into medical and community settings across the U.S. as they complete a 16-week capstone rotation. In many cases, they are piloting programs and implementing action steps related to their doctoral projects. And, they have been presenting at regional, state and national conferences.

Candidates shared their doctoral capstone projects at the 2019 Occupational Justice Symposium in May. Additionally, Kilburg said 14 St. Ambrose students presented at the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) annual conference in New Orleans last month, some presented at the Institute for Person-Centered Care Conference at SAU and some have published electronic blogs and contributed to professional forums.

MacKenzie Kelley photo

MacKenzie Kelley

Class of 2019

Candidates shared their doctoral capstone projects at the 2019 Occupational Justice Symposium in May.

OTD candidate MacKenzie Kelley recorded an Apple podcast, Glass Half Full, to share her research and drive for occupational justice for women.

Kelley's doctoral research topic, Role Adjustment, Mental Health and NICU Experiences of Mothers, found, in part, that mothers tend to abandon or dismiss their own self-care when they have a high-need infant in the NICU or at home.

"There are a lot of psychological and social issues that are disrupting their ability to participate fully in life," Kelley said. "When you give someone back a piece of their function, whether it is mental, cognitive or social functioning, you are giving them more ownership into their daily habits."

She is completing her capstone placement working in the NICU at Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock. In part, she is helping the hospital develop an education program for parents with high-need infants. The goal is to make sure parents feel supported and confident in their parenting skills, which can boost personal confidence, too.

Kelley is using her doctoral research and completing additional research, to help the hospital develop such a program.

Kelley presented her doctoral research on two national stages in the past month: the AOTA conference and the National Association of Neonatal Therapists conference in Phoenix.

Photo of Lauren Lain

Lauren Lain

Class of 2019

Lauren Lain has presented her doctoral research project, Mental Illness in Rural Iowa: An Exploration of Challenges & Essential Elements, at several conferences.

Lauren Lain has presented her doctoral research project, Mental Illness in Rural Iowa: An Exploration of Challenges & Essential Elements, at the AOTA conference; the Iowa Occupational Therapy Association fall conference in Waterloo, Iowa; the Institute for Person-Centered Care Conference in Davenport; and the Royal College of Occupational Therapists Annual Conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Her research objective was, in part, to illustrate how a lack of community mental health services in rural areas can impact the daily functioning, independence, and safety of persons with serious mental illness.

Implications of her research included the need for occupational therapists to be involved in community programs and interventions to enhance the quality of life of individuals, promote recovery, and benefit the rural healthcare system. She also developed a hypothetical program that would provide Assertive Community Treatment with an OT emphasis.

Lain also is wrapping up her capstone placement at the Iowa Department of Public Health. After graduation, she wants to go back to rural Iowa and practice. She has applied for a John Hopkins fellowship and is also interested in working in labor and delivery.

"At some point, I would like to transition into community mental health, and I will continue working to develop my program as I would like to see it implemented one day," Lain said.

The impact of the doctoral capstone projects completed by the first OTD cohort multiplies as the projects are shared with, and tested by, other health professionals in an effort to improve patient care and outcomes, Kilburg said.

"We share that information so others can learn as well. Without that key component, we are not fulfilling our occupational justice mission and impacting the most lives possible," she said.

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