By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – The University of Nebraska at Kearney recently expanded its partnership with the University of Nebraska Medical Center to offer a new pathway for occupational therapy.
Students can now pursue a career in this high-demand health care profession while receiving academic and financial support through the Kearney Health Opportunities Program (KHOP), a successful collaboration between UNK and UNMC that trains medical professionals who are committed to practicing in rural Nebraska.
KHOP participants receive a full-tuition scholarship to attend UNK and guaranteed admission to UNMC if all requirements are met. The KHOP Learning Community provides additional support, mentoring and professional development opportunities for first-year UNK students, along with a $2,000 room waiver.
Launched in 2010, the program addresses an urgent need for health care professionals by recruiting and educating students from rural Nebraska who remain in these areas to practice. More than 100 UNK students are currently receiving their pre-professional training in one of the 10 eligible medical fields.
“We have been very pleased with the success of this program and its potential impact on the workforce shortages in rural parts of our state,” said Peggy Abels, director of UNK Health Sciences. “We look forward to further collaboration with UNMC to assist in filling the demand for occupational therapists.”
According to a 2020 report from UNMC, more than a third of the state’s 93 counties don’t have a practicing occupational therapist, a professional who helps patients develop, recover or improve the skills needed for work and everyday life. That means these services may be largely inaccessible to many rural Nebraskans because of time and travel constraints.
Nationally, employment of occupational therapists is projected to grow by 17% over the next decade, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with professionals in the field earning a median salary of $86,280 per year. There are career opportunities with hospitals, physician practices, mental health centers, long-term care facilities, schools and home health agencies.
“Occupational therapy is great because we can engage people wherever they live, play, work, learn and rest. We provide service to a diverse population and treat people across the lifespan, facilitating the engagement in daily life activities that people both need and want to do,” said Dr. Leah Stade, an assistant professor and academic fieldwork coordinator in the UNMC Division of Occupational Therapy Education.
The occupational therapy program requires approximately seven years of undergraduate and professional school education. After completing a bachelor’s degree at UNK, students will enter UNMC’s three-year occupational therapy program in Omaha or Kearney. Graduates of the UNMC program will receive a Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) degree and be eligible to take the national certification examination.
“Our program is delighted to partner with UNK to promote the occupational therapy profession,” said Stade, a UNK graduate who works at the Health Science Education Complex on campus. “We recognize the high caliber of education provided by UNK, and we look forward to working together to educate the occupational therapists of the future.”
In addition to occupational therapy, KHOP students can study in the fields of dental hygiene, dentistry, medical laboratory science, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, physician assistant and radiography.
For more information on the program, visit unk.edu/khop. The deadline for applications is Dec. 1.