Affordable, Available CEUs: How to Find the Ones that Meet Your Needs

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By Judith Philipps Otto

Most practitioners' to-do lists are getting longer while their available time is getting shorter. Dealing with increased documentation requirements, keeping pace with Medicare's changing regulations, and delivering the latest and most conscientious patient care is demanding enough—but finding the extra hours and dollars necessary to keep up with technological advances and the continuing education (CE) requirements to maintain certifications can sometimes be the most daunting challenge on that list. Experts in the profession agree that there is no shortage of CE opportunities—in fact, with the increasing availability of online learning, there are more educational opportunities available than ever before. The trick is finding and identifying those that offer the greatest value for your investment of both time and money.

While coupon clipping may not be an option, awareness of these bargains and tips offered by industry experts will certainly make you a smarter shopper and help you stay informed and certified with less stress and effort.

Peter Rosenstein

Rosenstein

More Ways and Means to Invest Wisely

Universally, those who offer and/or assign continuing education units and credits (CEUs and CECs) for learning opportunities identify a trend toward the development of more practitioner-friendly options. Programs and courses are evolving in response to the profession's expressed needs, and the emphasis from course developers continues to be on keeping costs as low as possible.

Peter Rosenstein, executive director of the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists (the Academy), reports that its course costs haven't increased recently, and the Academy has no intention of raising prices within the next couple of years. "We haven't raised our dues in over ten years. We are very cognizant of costs for people-we try to keep costs as reasonable as possible."

Joe McTernan, the American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association's (AOPA's) director of coding and reimbursement services, education, and programming, notes that AOPA likewise has had no price increases in any of its education programs for several years. "We've worked very hard to maintain that line. Our audio conference series has been set at $99 per session with a volume discount if you order the whole-a price that's been in place for six or seven years."

Claudia Zacharias

Zacharias

Conscious of the pressure to keep costs low, Claudia Zacharias, MBA, CAE, president and CEO of the Board of Certification/ Accreditation (BOC), points out that it costs the same amount to produce a course that 20,000 people will take as it does to produce one that 100 people will take, but unlike other healthcare fields that have thousands of certificants, "O&P just doesn't have the volume to disperse the expense over a larger population."

However, agencies and course providers are offering more worthwhile options for education than ever before, tailored to meet practitioner requests. In addition to the usual clinical courses that focus on high-tech devices, even manufacturers are responsively adding course offerings that address practice management and related issues. By request, Ottobock, Minneapolis, Minnesota, has created not only classroom courses in technician training and refresher courses on clinical basics, but also microprocessor-controlled knee (MPK) reimbursement webinars to support practice staff members who handle the increasingly challenging job of pursuing reimbursement. More than 40 classroom and online offerings that provide nearly 275 CEUs for O&P practitioners are available from this company alone, all at no cost.

Brian K. Lagana, executive director and director of government affairs of the Pedorthic Footcare Association (PFA), which has been "in the symposium business" since 1958, notes that PFA began offering webinar CEUs in 2002 or 2003, which he says continue to be a bargain. "We have a flat rate, whether it's a one-hour webinar or a two-and-a-half-hour webinar-which would equate to one to two-and-a-half CEUs. So in that respect, the value per CEU is pretty high." He adds that PFA also offers convenient, value-priced CEUs for specific articles in issues of Current Pedorthics magazine-available on the association's website.

It does not appear that the economy has reduced participation in continuing education, accreditation agencies and professional organizations report. Even though the number of people taking advantage of the growing distance-learning opportunities has been increasing, attendance at traditional methods of learning, including most national symposiums, seminars, and professional meetings, has remained consistent for the most part despite the associated costs of air travel, accommodations, and meals.

Heather Harris

Harris

In fact, after taking a hiatus from 2009-2012 from its poorly attended regional workshop programs, PFA recently resumed offering them in response to demand. It hopes to average one to two geographically varied workshops per month in 2014.

Heather Harris, director of continuing education programs for the American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics & Pedorthics (ABC), reports similar findings. "ABC approves approximately 1,500 live courses and/or meetings per year, which has remained consistent for at least five years, while the number of approved distance-learning courses has increased. There are more distance-learning opportunities available now than ever before-and I expect that trend to continue."

Regional seminars and state meetings have become increasingly attractive alternatives for those who are watching their budgets. "There are a tremendous number of state organizations that put on meetings on an annual or semi-annual basis," says McTernan. "People who are looking to save some money but still get their credits may want to consider looking into those regional and state organizations. Find out when their meetings are. They can go to those meetings and get a whole handful of credits in a very short amount of time, where they may be driving instead of flying."

Distance Learning, Webinars, and Phone Seminars

Dave McGill

McGill

While the majority of CE coursework offered by Össur, Foothill Ranch, California, consists of in-person seminars, which it believes to be the best way to effectively communicate with customers about proper clinical application of its products, Dave McGill, JD, Össur's vice president, legal and reimbursement, notes that the company is expanding its online platform into new areas this spring. This will coincide with redesigning its successful in-person reimbursement seminars to suit a more readily accessible online format, complete with CEUs.

While AOPA is known for its coding and billing seminars, McTernan has seen registrations for its monthly audio conferences trending upward, and AOPA is working to develop additional content for its practice management series-currently three modules which he hopes to grow to ten within this calendar year.

Chellie Blondes, the Academy's deputy executive director, reports that the Academy's live monthly webinars are recorded and accessible via its Paul E. Leimkuehler Online Learning Center (OLC) as well. "Webinars provide a great opportunity to do something online, in your office, and still in a live format where you can ask questions." The successful series, which began last year, continues, and Blondes is looking for opportunities to partner with manufacturers to make more webinar offerings available.

Rosenstein also says that although the Academy has seen about the same number of people attending its meetings, there has been a significant increase in use of its OLC over the last few years. "If you can get your credits sitting at home at night or on the weekend, it's hard to make it easier than that."

He points to the opportunity for a group of people to view the live webinars together during a lunch hour, for the cost of one registration. "The only people who have to continue to pay are those who want to take the test and get credit for it. Often, people don't need the extra credit; they're just interested in the information."

Mark Edwards

Edwards

Mark Edwards, CP, MHPE, Ottobock's director of professional and technical services, observes that although the company offers many options, nearly all of its product training courses are available online, along with a basic prosthetic and orthotic skill series. Since online learning often provides only one-way communication, students should be proactive in pursuing clarification of those points that aren't readily understood, he cautions.

Fresh, Free, and Almost Free

More people are taking more courses of more types than ever before-and available, affordable, and creative ways to earn CEUs continue to increase in response to demand.

Blondes describes "State of the Science" conference reports available on the Academy website. "The information itself is free of charge because the events were funded by grants that the Academy had, so that information is public information. If you want to take the credits, however, you have to purchase the course."

McTernan points to AOPA's audio conference series and a growing curriculum in the webcast series, currently with nine Medicare modules and three practice management modules. "We also have several opportunities to get continuing education credits actually at no charge," he says. "[Practitioners] can watch videos on our website of sessions held at the World Congress and the National Assembly-some of which offer CEUs at no charge." (To access these offerings, visit www.aopanetonline.org/education/categories)

The ability to earn CECs associated with articles in O&P Almanac, AOPA's monthly membership magazine, is also available at no charge, McTernan reports. "Because of the highly educational content of the O&P Almanac's Reimbursement Page and Compliance Corner, [our] readers can now earn two business continuing education credits each time they read these articles and pass the accompanying quiz."

Karen Henry

Henry

The O&P EDGE has also kicked off some unique and value-priced CE opportunities, explains Karen Henry, director of editorial and special projects. "Although we aren't in the education business and don't provide education credits per se, we partnered with the Academy, ABC, and manufacturers that advertise in The O&P EDGE to develop online education modules around products that are advertised in our magazine." She says the EDGE Quick Credit program offers "minicourses" that serve both practitioner and manufacturer: Practitioners can capture quick and inexpensive ABC- and BOC-approved one- and two-credit courses (for $20 and $40, respectively) that provide a basic overview of a product they may want to explore in more detail directly with the manufacturer. Manufacturers appreciate the opportunity to provide a quick but informative product preview for interested potential customers among the 14,600 readers of The O&P EDGE.

EDGE Quick Credit modules are timely, with a 90-day window before they expire, and are replaced with fresh offerings—all catalogued at www.oandp.org/olc/eqc and in the magazine as well.

Hogni Fridriksson

Fridriksson

Freedom Innovations, Irvine, California, is also pioneering what Hogni Fridriksson, its director of marketing and clinical services, calls "a completely revamped approach to education" founded on adult learning principles that stress peer-to-peer teaching with active student participation.

"We've trained our trainers to utilize current adult learning principles based on the 'see-do-teach' concept," he explains. "This involves various ideas, such as stopping at regular intervals and asking the audience questions or getting them to do an activity that reinforces what they just learned." The new-for-2014 curriculum introduces 15 different offerings, including a scientific track and a new business track, with a total of 20 CEUs available at no cost.

"Customers receive our professional educational catalog detailing the courses," says Fridriksson, "and they tell us which modules meet their facility's educational needs-from product training modules, to teaching your patient how to run, to improving patient-clinician communication, to documenting and defending RAC [Recovery Audit Contractor] audits."

The only limitation is the customer's available time, Fridriksson says. "If they want to do an eight-hour day and get all the CEUs they can get, we'll be happy to do that for them. It's very flexible. All they have to provide us is a facility and their time and attention. The rest is on us."

Össur is also stressing person-to-person learning in a "brand new option," says McGill. "We are excited to be opening a brand new Össur Academy in Orlando, Florida; the grand opening was March 6-7. The physical site includes a full lab where area practitioners will have a chance to really see products hands-on in an environment that is particularly conducive to understanding the potential for certain types of products on the right patient."

Zacharias notes that BOC offers rewarding and uncommon CE solutions. "We do have a lot of out-of-the-box solutions for the busy practitioner and certificant-some of them are very creative. The independent study option allows one to read an article from a professional or academic journal and then write a one-page summary in order to earn one CE credit hour per article, and that's very attractive. It gives the certificant a lot of freedom to choose the article and to summarize it at their own pace." Teaching at educational seminars is another way to earn credit hours, as is volunteer service on a board or committee-an option other certification bodies offer as well, says Zacharias.

The convenience of creative hybrid programs allows students with time constraints to complete part of their coursework online at their own pace. "Once they have completed three days' worth of required online work and the related assessment, they're eligible to travel for the face-to-face training during the final two days," Zacharias explains.

Meetings of the Minds—Adding Value to Costly Conferences

Despite the clear educational and networking advantages offered by national meetings and symposiums, the associated expenses of travel, accommodations, and food prohibit some facilities from sending as many attendees as they'd like. Lagana suspects this is the reason for the recent decline in attendance at PFA symposiums, and does not dismiss the possibility of combining major meetings with another organization to make the event more affordable.

"Everything should be considered to make the larger continuing education events more accessible to more attendees. I think at some time in the future you are going to see that evolution, and it may not be in the far too distant future."

For the present, he and other organizations are focusing on adding value to their annual meetings. AOPA has expanded its 2014 pedorthic education track to four days at its National Assembly, slated for September 4-7. PFA is adding pre- and post-symposium programming for those who want to maximize their time and pick up additional CEUs, and the Academy offered a Saturday certificate program immediately following its Annual Meeting & Scientific Symposium in February. Rosenstein says that this helped attendees "so that people who wanted to go for it could just stay over for an extra day without paying for another airfare. There was even a registration discount involved."

Finding the Best Fit-Making the Search Easier

How do practioners find the right course, price, time, and location? ABC's new website enhancements are making that task easier than ever, says Harris. "The enhanced search feature will allow practitioners to find courses specific to their needs, interests, and areas of specialty. Not only can they easily search for continuing education directly relevant to their credential, they will also be able to search subcategories within their discipline, such as spinal, halo management, upper extremity, facility management, and other topic-specific content." Harris continues, "Some view continuing education as a penalty. I want them to see this requirement as encouragement to better serve their patients."

BOC's website has also been recently redesigned to make it easier for certificants to find precisely those CE offerings that will provide the most value for them. "When a certificant logs in through the MyBOC portal, the continuing education page automatically populates with the relevant CE information for that certificant's discipline, listing courses within their geographical area," explains Zacharias. "If you're travelling and want to take a course near your destination area, you may easily customize your search. All new course information is automatically assimilated and updated in real time, as soon as we receive it, so it's immediately accessible."

She also points out that BOC's unique CE requirement flow allows certificants five years to acquire the requisite number of CEUs, with no annual individual requirement, allowing them to be more flexible in their planning. "The website automatically tracks their credits, too, and adds any newly acquired credits, so it's easy to see at log in just where they stand, credit-wise."

Edwards also reminds CEU seekers that "the Internet, the O&P trade publications, networking with colleagues, all of those are ways that you can learn about relevant education that's taking place."

Judith Philipps Otto is a freelance writer who has assisted with marketing and public relations for various clients in the O&P profession. She has been a newspaper writer and editor and has won national and international awards as a broadcast writer-producer.