Accredited Academic Programs in O&P - Key to the Future

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By Edward S. Neuman, PhD, PE, CP
Edward S. Neumann, PhD, PE, CP
Edward S. Neumann, PhD, PE, CP

The quality of today's accredited and candidate O&P degree and certificate programs may well determine the fate of the profession during the next twenty years. Will the graduates coming out of these programs have the skills and capabilities needed to make the theoretical, technical, and clinical advances necessary to retain a leadership role in the field of rehabilitation? Or will the role of the CP, CO, and CPO diminish as the knowledge levels and skills of other health care disciplines evolve more rapidly than ours? Can we legitimately claim that the orthotist/prosthetist who graduates from the accredited and candidate programs will possess skills and knowledge that can be attained only from those programs? Or can a case be made that someone with less than a baccalaureate degree, who apprentices under an experienced practitioner rather than seeking a formal education via one of the National Commission on Orthotic and Prosthetic Education (NCOPE)-accredited programs, will wind up possessing equivalent knowledge and skill?

Instead of attempting to answer these questions, which underlie much of the debate about alternative paths to certification, I will instead restate them in the following thesis: unless a compelling case can be made that the graduate of an NCOPE program possesses knowledge and skills sets that cannot be developed adequately in other ways outside a formal program, and unless a compelling case can be made that these knowledge and skill sets are essential to practice because they directly influence the likelihood of achieving successful outcomes (i.e., it is in the public interest for practitioners to have these skills), then the future of O&P programs may be very bleak. The corollary proposition to this thesis is that O&P curricula are the keystone of the profession, and without strong curricula the future of the O&P profession also will be bleak.

The academic curricula in accredited O&P programs play a very important role both within and outside the O&P profession. Because they identify the knowledge and skill domains deemed necessary to practice the profession, they reflect the state of the art. In so doing, they also make visible to knowledgeable individuals in related professions the level of intellectual and technical accomplishment that the O&P profession has attained. Because the knowledge and skill domains for O&P curricula are established by O&P practitioners themselves, and not by individuals from outside the profession, they represent important yardsticks by which the profession can be gauged. The more difficult it is to make distinctions between the knowledge, skills, and abilities of practitioners who have pursued formal educational programs in O&P and those who have not, the murkier licensing issues become, and the greater is the threat to the profession.

Most of us recognize the importance of having accredited programs in O&P and are strong advocates of NCOPE. And most of us believe that matriculation from a formal, structured educational program in O&P should be viewed as a key stepping-stone and the only socially responsible path to professional practice. However, the question we need to continually address is whether academic program accreditation guidelines are sufficiently strong to develop a clear distinction between the post-graduate knowledge and clinical skills of those who pursue the formal educational path that NCOPE has prescribed in comparison to the knowledge and clinical skills of those who do not take formal academic programs but seek certification via alternate pathways. I hope to share my opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of academic program curricula in facing this challenge at greater length in a future issue of The O&P EDGE .