U Medical School Plans To Drop Occupational Therapy

On December 12th – 13th, the Regents of the University of Minnesota will be asked to eliminate the Program in Occupational Therapy from the Medical School’s Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.  The Dean of the Medical School has proposed the idea as an easy way to save a few bucks.  The Regents should reject it as a terrible example of bowing to expedience, rather than examining the long term effect on the Department and the State. 

It may be that the projected elimination of a very successful program is meant to startle the Regents and the legislature, but it seems more likely that the Department of Physical Medicine and their Program in Occupational Therapy are being targeted because of low visibility and relative powerlessness in the Medical School hierarchy.  It won’t save that much money and will damage the school, and the people of the state.

In September, Dr. David Brown, Dean of the University of Minnesota Medical School, decided that the Medical School’s Program in Occupational Therapy should be eliminated in order to partially comply with the 3% reduction in funding required of each University unit. 

Dr. Brown gave his assurance to present students that they will be able to complete and graduate from the program without loss of quality as the program is phased out.  He also assured that the two other allied health baccalaureate degree programs, physical therapy and medical technology, will continue as important components of high priority programs.  He said the Medical School has a high regard for rehabilitative medicine and is committed to developing a contemporary, innovative multidisciplinary program.  In fact he is now engaged in an intensive search for a person of stature to head the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 

Dr. Brown did not say how long his intensive search for a new director of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation has been going on, nor when the commitment was made to develop the new programming, but the fact is that the department has had only “interim” directors for over eight years.  Dr. Thompson the current “interim” director resigned on October 31st after serving for 7 years.

Dr. Brown said that although Occupational Therapy is an important component of health care delivery, it is not essential to the educational program in rehabilitative medicine.  He pointed out that in many other states, Occupational Therapy programs are sponsored by institutions that concentrate on undergraduate education.  Locally, only the College of St. Catherine has such a program.

Assistant Professor Erica Stern, one of the three PhD. occupational therapists now on the faculty says that the demand for graduates in the field has never been higher.  There are about one hundred applicants for admission for each year’s class of 30 in Occupational Therapy.  The course requires two years of academic work, so a total of 60 are in attendance.  Students enrolled in the Occupational Therapy program represent a very significant portion of the P.M. & R. Department, working together with Physiatry and Physical Therapy program participants also in training.

Current direct costs of the Occupational Therapy department are about $350,000, with tuition fees covering about $200,000 of this expense.  As a result, Dean Brown will save approximately $150,000 by the elimination of this program.  The Medical School needs to save $1.22 million to accommodate budget cuts.  

The Regents of the University must act on this proposal on December 12th & 13th.  They have been receiving a very large number of protests to Dr. Brown’s suggestion from professional organizations, hospital administrators and individual professionals in the field of rehabilitation.  The letter writers point to the following facts:

The Program in Occupational Therapy at the University of Minnesota is 45 years old, and is the only public program in the state.  The only other program in Minnesota is at the College of St. Catherine, a private women’s college.  Students at the University pay about $3500.00 annually, and students at St. Catherine’s pay about $9500.00. 

In the five state area of North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, there are only eight Occupational Therapy Programs.  Of these, only four are public universities.

Forty million Americans have a disability, making it the number one health problem in the country in cost and prevalence.  Occupational Therapy may mean the difference between a person going home or to a nursing home; going to work or being on disability.

The 1990 Economic Report to the Governor of Minnesota states that a 26% increase in Occupational Therapy positions is projected from 1988 to 1993.

The American Hospital Association reports that there were 2100 unfilled hospital positions for Occupational Therapists in 1988.

As senior citizens live longer and “baby boomers” age, the need for services increases.

New technology and more efficient medical care are saving more trauma victims and premature infants who need therapy services to gain independence.

The Regents will be making a grave mistake by eliminating this program, and the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation will certainly be diminished further in the process.  The Program in Occupational Therapy may be more vulnerable to this sort of treatment because 5 of its 6 faculty are non-tenured.  The remaining tenured professor will retire soon.  We hope the Regents will ask Dr. Brown to find another way of saving money or make a better case to the legislature.  We need our Occupational Therapists and we need to rebuild the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, not dismantle it.