Make a Career of Making a Difference

by Julie G. Hayes

Currently, job opportunities abound throughout the country and the demand for orthotic and prosthetic (O&P) professionals is increasing rapidly. New, advanced methods of fabricating orthopedic braces and artificial limbs are being developed continually. This is a career that combines art, science, technology and creativity and satisfies the desire to make a difference in people’s lives.

A Growing Demand
Students (and parents) want to know that the career they are considering will be around once they have completed the training requirements. While no projections are 100 percent accurate, jarring statistics spotlight the mushrooming demand for O&P care and potential future shortage of qualified providers and students. In 1990, more than 3.5 million Americans were using some kind of orthosis, a more than 100 percent increase in a single decade, according to an updated study conducted by Caroline Nielsen, PhD, entitled Issues Affecting the Future Demand for Orthotists and Prosthetists (2002).

The twin epidemics of diabetes and obesity, coupled with the rise in cardiovascular disease leaves millions of Americans at an increased risk for amputation. The war in Iraq is also contributing to growing numbers of amputees. It is critical to get some of the best and brightest young minds out there to consider O&P as a career or the profession will not meet the demand of patients who require this important care.

A Bright Future
As the Nielsen study unequivocally states, “Without substantial changes in the number of educational programs, and the number of graduates becoming certified, the profession will be unable to serve the needs of a substantial percent of the population.” At present, O&P graduates have a 100 percent employment rate and most choose to make it a lifelong profession. Few occupations can offer that type of employment rate. Presenting this information to students and parents can increase their awareness of an attainable career that can make a huge difference in the lives of others.

Changing Hearts and Minds
As part of a national recruitment and awareness campaign, the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists has conducted more than 50 outreach programs in the states where O&P schools are located (CA, CT, GA, IL, MN, TX and WA) to introduce students to a career in O&P. As a result of these visits, more than one-third of the students polled expressed an interest in orthotics and prosthetics as a possible career option. Additional visits will be made in 2005 to also include outreach to high schools and allied health programs in Michigan.

The award-winning program, “Changing Hearts and Minds”,led by Paralympic medallists Dennis Oehler and Todd Schaffhauser is not your ordinary career presentation. The program briefly describes Dennis and Todd’s journey of denial, depression, and frustration and finally acceptance of their disabilities after discovering the power of O&P rehabilitation. Their perseverance and commitment to their sport teaches students the resilience of the human spirit and showcases the amazing work of O&P professionals. Dennis and Todd are joined by a local practitioner who further discusses careers and schooling in O&P before bringing out some examples of the latest in O&P technology.

Spreading the Word
This emerging “hot career” offers a blend of art, science, technology and creativity, and delivers great personal satisfaction from helping others directly. There is a need for bright, imaginative individuals to meet the growing needs of patients. This is a profession that welcomes diverse individuals who want to help people, are good with their hands and excel at problem solving.

Introducing high school students to the possibility of pursuing O&P careers helps them to better tailor their choice of majors and course selection in college toward their future goals. Students with interests in health sciences, medicine, technology, or service occupations should be encouraged to explore the O&P field in more detail.

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