Technician Education: What Do Educators Say?

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By Miki Fairley
Median School instructors, from left, William Broker; Judith Oreski, CPO; Scott Emler, RTPO.  Photos courtesy of Median School of Allied Health Careers.
Median School instructors, from left, William Broker; Judith Oreski, CPO; Scott Emler, RTPO. Photos courtesy of Median School of Allied Health Careers.

Judith Oreski, CPO , director, Orthotic & Prosthetic Technician Program, Median School of Allied Health Careers, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, believes that sophisticated technology is changing the role of the technician. "It's becoming a less labor-intensive job, which means that a more diverse group of people are attracted to the profession: more women, more creative and artistic students, and more computer types."

Oreski also sees more financial opportunities for technicians in the proliferation of central fabrication facilities, since they can become owners of their own facilities.

More young people are being attracted to the profession, Oreski comments. "They are becoming aware of O&P through the publicity the new technology gets on television programs such as 20/20 and Discovery. Also, the O&P field is taking initiatives to encourage young people to enter the profession."

With more young people in the field, more technicians are going to take advantage of articulation agreements that many of the associate degree programs have with four-year colleges to continue their education, she says. "I think many technicians likely will branch off into engineering or computer fields, thus using their expanded skills and knowledge to facilitate product design and development."

Low starting salaries are a problem, she points out. "This discourages bright, innovative students from entering the field." However, she sees hope for change. Noting that practitioner education emphasized fabrication more in the past, she said practitioners didn't value the technician's contribution as much. "Today, with more emphasis on clinical patient care and research, technicians' fabrication skills are needed by practitioners."

"In the future, I hope to see O&P technicians given more status in the field, just as technical personnel are valued in other scientific fields. I hope that the field will recognize and reward the inventiveness, problem-solving skills, and artistry possessed by a good technician-especially with the proliferation of new and sophisticated technology."

Besides learning basic skills, Oreski would like to see students have more hands-on experience with advanced technology, possibly with manufacturers' representatives visiting the schools, since buying sufficient high-tech products for student use is prohibitively expensive. Also needed is more instruction in CAD/CAM technology, since it is becoming more widely used, she added.

Ed Haddon, MEd, CO
Ed Haddon, MEd, CO

Students would benefit from more time in the field during their education, she believes. "Often they don't realize the importance of the work they are learning to do. I think if they saw a person becoming functional by using the brace or prosthesis they are learning to fabricate, they would take the instruction far more seriously and take more pride in their work."

Oreski speaks highly of her calling and her colleagues: "O&P educators, past and present, do their best within the constraints of reality-budgets, shortened program lengths, and students with varying degrees of interest and ability."

Ed Haddon, MEd, CO , director, Orthotic and Prosthetic Technician Program, Century College, White Bear Lake, Minnesota, sees a bright future ahead for technicians.

"The interest in the technician programs is on the rise, and the number of new students has increased 50 percent in the past six months at Century College," Haddon says, adding, "It is very encouraging to see the increased interest from high school students that come to the college part time to explore the O&P programs. The number of technician job opportunities for our students far exceeds the number of graduates."

The student population at Century College is diverse, ranging in age from 16 to 60 years old and coming from a variety of backgrounds. Their educational experience ranges from being juniors in high school to holding masters degrees. "As the interest grows and the graduates increase, I hope that all the programs will be able to met the demand for qualified technicians," says Haddon.

Educating technicians is an expensive endeavor, Haddon points out. "The quality of technical education has been maintained over the years, despite budget cuts that have affected not only the technician programs, but also all aspects of education." Haddon commends the generosity of O&P suppliers, individuals, and facilities in donating machinery, supplies, funds, and time in presenting educational lectures to students. "Industry advisory committees are also an important part of O&P education," says Haddon. "Their support and guidance is imperative when it comes to the direction that the individual programs will take."

Although guided by NCOPE standards, the individual schools for the most part have developed their own curriculum or revised information shared by other programs, Haddon notes. Books that pertain specifically to O&P fabrication are few, but information to update curricula can now be collected faster and more easily, he points out. "Computers are making it easier to revise and design curricula and deliver content. Internet websites that pertain to O&P can be included as part of new curriculum content."

Century College students complete at least three fabrications for each type of orthoses, prostheses and other projects as part of their program completion.
Century College students complete at least three fabrications for each type of orthoses, prostheses and other projects as part of their program completion.

Haddon would like to see national O&P organizations sponsor an initiative to gather information and write a standardized curriculum for the essential technical areas. He would like to see a clearinghouse for this curriculum and for it to be available in other languages. "We have the talent out there to do this. All we need is the backing of our profession."

Current technician education has improved over that of the past for several reasons, according to Clayton Wright, CP , prosthetics instructor, Orthotics & Prosthetics Technician Program, Spokane Falls Community College, Spokane, Washington. The program is receiving strong industry support from suppliers coming to its lab with the latest in component and materials technology, thus exposing students to techniques and products not included in the curriculum, he said. "We have very generous and reliable suppliers who donate costly materials on an ongoing basis. This provides the students with ample quantities of high-end fabrication materials which would otherwise be outside of our budget." Wright also commends Fabtech, Everett, Washington, co-owned by one of the school's graduates: "Fabtech is very generous in providing inservices and materials." The program also has been able to incorporate many new prosthetic designs and fabrication techniques in its curriculum, he adds.

Clayton Wright, CP
Clayton Wright, CP

Wright sees a change in the technician's role: "The technician is being relied upon more and more to take ownership of the fabrication process, as practitioners have less time available to oversee the process and may have less knowledge of fabrication than practitioners of the past."

"Central to the development of the O&P Associate Program is industry experience with patient case studies," says Jerry D. Wilson , department head, Small Business Occupations, Oklahoma State University-Okmulgee. An O&P industry advisory committee, now comprising over 20 practitioners, meets twice a year to provide advice, direction, and support to the program, Wilson notes.

Jerry D. Wilson
Jerry D. Wilson

Danny Thies, CO , director of the O&P Associate Program, says, "We want our students to learn quickly that they are crucial partners in their own learning. The result is learning that is fun, spontaneous, rapid, deep, authentic, engaging, and mastery-driven."

Thies would like to see more presentations from allied healthcare professionals to help O&P students widen their learning.

Theis also comments on the shortage of technicians: "There are not enough graduates to meet the need. What's wrong with technician education is basically that there's just not enough of it." Adding to the shortage is the number of technicians who go on to become practitioners, he noted. He would like to see more support for education, including at the national level, from the O&P profession.

Danny Thies, CO
Danny Thies, CO

Technicians have more patient contact than they used to, Thies said. However, he believes that in the future, licensure, certification, and other regulations may define practice boundaries more stringently, somewhat similar to the defined roles of physical therapy assistants and physician assistants. "Now what technicians do in each facility is largely up to the practitioners and owners," he notes.

Wilson sees a promising future ahead for healthcare workers: "The US Department of Labor estimates a demand for 2.8 million healthcare workers. With the high rate of diabetes challenging this country, people who are trained in orthotics, prosthetics, and pedorthics will experience nothing but success in the job market."

Technicians' Role: Options and Opportunities Increase

OSU-Okmulgee pedorthic student, Melissa Ferguson, uses shoemaking skills to help make a wish come true.  Photo courtesy of OSU-Public Infomation Office, Doreen White, Public Information Specialist., Public Information Specialist.
OSU-Okmulgee pedorthic student, Melissa Ferguson, uses shoemaking skills to help make a wish come true. Photo courtesy of OSU-Public Infomation Office, Doreen White, Public Information Specialist., Public Information Specialist.

Technician education is taking a bigger role on the O&P stage. Increasingly, state, regional, and national O&P association meetings are devoting a substantial segment of their programs to technician education.

Perhaps due to the technician shortage, the market for central fabrication facilities seems to be growing, and technician entrepreneurs are not slow to take advantage of opportunities to own their own businesses.

Today's technician is a skilled professional in his or her own right. Several technicians have pointed out in interviews with The O&P EDGE that they feel technicians are complementary to practitioners, rather than occupying a lower rung on the ladder. Both fabrication and clinical skills are needed for successful patient care, they point out, some adding that they make a higher income than many practitioners they know. Adding to the need for more skilled technicians is what is regarded by some as a de-emphasis on hand skills in practitioner education, making the technician even more necessary.

The conclusion for many technicians is that their field is a career in itself, not merely a step on the way to becoming a practitioner, although, of course, a substantial number do take that path. Also becoming more prominent is an intermediate field of practitioner assistant or associate, similar to a physical therapy assistant or physician assistant.

Technician education is a many-faceted and changing field. Stay tuned for more information about promising developments in this area.

Profile: Baker College of Flint O&P Technology Program

Craig R. Smith, BS, CPO
Craig R. Smith, BS, CPO

Just beginning its second year and awaiting the results of a site visit from the National Commission on Orthotic and Prosthetic Education (NCOPE) is the Orthotic/Prosthetic Technology Program at Baker College of Flint in Michigan. Craig R. Smith, BS, CPO, coordinator, describes the two-year program:

The Baker Orthotic/Prosthetic Technology Program leads to an associate of applied science degree. Graduates are eligible to take tests in either or both disciplines. Included in the program is a 240-hour externship providing both laboratory training and practical field experience.

Baker is a "right to try" private college, specializing in business, engineering, and computer technology, as well as health sciences. We are enjoying record enrollment and are currently the fourth largest college in Michigan. When students enroll at Baker, they take a placement exam, which determines if they require developmental courses in reading and study skills, math, or English. The purpose is to develop the students' skills sufficiently for success in their studies and chosen career.

As a former regional manager for a private chain of prosthetic, orthotic, and durable medical facilities, I saw the need for quality technicians. The reason I considered starting a program was the definite need to have well-rounded professionals:

  • Individuals who can communicate with other professionals in medical terminology and have the solid basic skills in fabrication needed to build a career with open-ended options in terms of education and career development.
  • Individuals who understand the work ethic ideal and realize that patients depend on them to be there when needed.
  • Individuals who can be a part of the clinical and multidisciplinary team.

It is essential to recruit and deliver an increased number of qualified technicians and practitioners to the disciplines of prosthetics and orthotics.