Pilot Project Addresses Alaska’s Health Provider Shortage

By: Staff   Aug 5, 2008

OMAHA, Neb., and Anchorage, Alaska - Creighton University, a Jesuit, Catholic university in Omaha, will launch a distance-learning program in August that is aimed at addressing the state of Alaska’s critical shortage of occupational therapists.

The pilot program – the first of its kind –  partners Creighton with the University of Alaska at Anchorage (UAA). Eight students will participate in the inaugural class.

“If successful, it could serve as a national model for addressing shortages of health care professionals in Alaska as well as other rural and underserved areas in the United States and worldwide,” said J. Chris Bradberry, Pharm.D., dean of the Creighton School of Pharmacy and Health Professions.

The students will gather for the first time on Monday, Aug. 11, on the UAA campus to begin their nine-semester journey to doctoral degrees in occupational therapy.

During a four-day orientation, they will meet with a team of Creighton faculty, staff and advisers and, among other things, learn about school policies and procedures as well as the University’s Jesuit mission and identity. They will be issued computers and software, complete training in distance-learning technology, and participate in a professionalism ceremony during which they will be issued white lab coats.

Subsequent classes, lectures and course work will be available online to students at their preferred times and locations. Creighton will hire adjunct professors to oversee lab clinics on the Anchorage campus as well as a full-time program coordinator based at UAA.

“Our goal is to create a learning environment, in collaboration with University of Alaska at Anchorage, that mirrors, as closely as possible, what the students would experience on Creighton’s campus,” said Brenda Coppard, Ph.D., Creighton chair of occupational therapy.

The unlikely partnership between a Jesuit, Catholic university in the Midwest and Alaska’s largest university came about after Alfred Bracciano, Ed.D., Creighton associate professor of occupational therapy, discussed the idea with Cheryl Easley, Ph.D., dean of UAA’s College of Health and Social Welfare. Bracciano and Easley know each other as a result of a previous affiliation at another university.

Creighton, which has offered the only accredited distance-pathway degree for doctor of pharmacy candidates since 2001, wanted to adapt that successful model for other health professions. UAA and Easley wanted to address the Alaska’s growing shortage of health care professionals.

In Alaska, students must attend out-of-state schools to earn degrees in such fields as occupational therapy, physical therapy and pharmacy, Easley noted. And, once they leave Alaska, they often do not return upon graduation.

“This partnership responds to the lack of educational opportunity for occupational therapists in Alaska and the shortage of OTs available to practice in this state,” Easley said. “The distance- delivered program that Creighton offers increases the likelihood that the graduates will remain in Alaska to work.”  

Bracciano noted that a 2007 study by the Alaska Center for Rural Health determined that Alaska faces a “perfect storm” in its struggle to meet the health needs of its residents, due to an aging population, a lack of health professionals, and the state’s unique geography.

The report listed shortages in many health care fields, including nursing, dentistry and medicine. However, the area which had the greatest need and shortage was in the field of rehabilitation, specifically in occupational therapy, he said.

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About Creighton University: Creighton University, a comprehensive Jesuit, Catholic institution located in Omaha, Neb., has embarked on the most ambitious fundraising campaign in the school’s history with a goal of raising $350 million. The Willing to Lead campaign reflects Creighton’s commitment to prepare and inspire tomorrow’s leaders. The freshman class profile consistently ranks in the top five among Midwestern universities of our size and the top 10 Catholic universities nationwide. We enroll more than 4,000 undergraduate and 2,900 professional school and graduate students in its College of Arts and Sciences, College of Business Administration, Graduate School, and Schools of Dentistry, Law, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy and Health Professions. For more information visit our website at: www.creighton.edu.

About the University of Alaska: Situated in the heart of Alaska’s largest city, the University of Alaska Anchorage is nestled in the middle of a greenbelt, surrounded by ponds, lakes and wildlife, and is connected to a city-wide trail and transportation system perfect for students’ active lifestyles.  

UAA, Alaska’s largest post-secondary institution, is comprised of six teaching units at the Anchorage campus: the colleges of Education, Health and Social Welfare, Arts and Sciences, Business and Public Policy; the Community and Technical College; and the School of Engineering.  There are four community campuses: Matanuska-Susitna College, Kenai Peninsula College, Kodiak College and Prince William Sound Community College.  Nearly 20,000 students call UAA home.