The Young Professional’s Guide to the World of O&P

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By John Pope, MS, MSPO, CSCS

This is the first installment in a series of articles in which I chronicle my transition from student to resident, and from resident to O&P professional. I'm learning as I go, but hopefully my trial and error can help someone else along the way.

What Does the Transition to Master's-level Education Mean to the New Resident?

graphic of road map

A multidisciplinary approach to patient treatment is emphasized in practice today, and the O&P profession is gaining recognition as part of the clinical care team. These teams include physicians, physical and occupational therapists, psychologists, and more-each of whom has been an identifiable member of this multidisciplinary team for much longer than the O&P practitioner.

These other medical professionals have stringent scholastic requirements to reach the level of training that their fields require. For example, physical therapy, as recently as 2000, began transitioning from a postgraduate degree to a doctoral degree as the entry-level educational requirement.1

And now O&P has transitioned to a master's degree as the entry-level educational requirement. It seems the reasons for O&P's transition mirror that of physical therapy's: "To speed the development and acceptance of autonomous practice in the field, to give the profession the respect/bargaining power needed for reimbursement, and for influence with state legislators..., and to improve entry-level preparation and the skillsets needed by today's practitioner."1

With new graduates entering the profession with a higher level of education and better preparation than ever before, how hard should it be to find that first job?

In my experience? Pretty hard.

There is still increasing concern over the healthcare system, Recovery Audit Contractor (RAC) audits, Medicare, and possible Local Coverage Determination (LCD) changes, which seem to make smaller practices hesitant to bring on a resident. This leaves new graduates in need of residencies but lacking the work experience or practical skills application that employers want. Practices could bring on a resident and train him or her to be exactly what they want in a practitioner, but then they run the risk of that resident leaving after finishing his or her residency and losing an investment of time, training, and resources.

So where does this leave new O&P graduates? After spending the time and money for a master's-level education, you are now being told that you don't have enough experience, that you're not worth the time investment, or that there aren't enough residency spots to accommodate the graduating classes.

Life After School

Shortly after graduating from a master's program in O&P, I found myself in a precarious position. I had a degree, a mountain of school debt, a part-time job in retail sales, no prior O&P work experience, and no residency.

So now what? If you find yourself in a similar position, don't panic. After all, you have prepared as best as you can and put yourself in the best possible position to be successful. When I finished the on-site portion of our school's O&P program, I moved home for the final months of online coursework. I also wanted to stay involved in the profession and feel like I was using the skills and knowledge I had acquired so I started contacting local practices and asking if I could shadow practitioners. I didn't receive one e-mail or call back. Next, I decided to take a more direct approach. I printed resumés and cover letters and took them to ten practices in the surrounding area and introduced myself face-to-face. I met ten nice receptionists that day and I received ten business cards.

After all that work, I had nothing to show for it. If I were going to get frustrated, that would have probably been the time. But I chose to continue reading and staying current on research. I started a list of relevant research ideas that I would be interested in pursuing. I began rewriting my school notes into a journal for easy reference when I needed them.

I contacted a local adaptive sports nonprofit organization to volunteer. The volunteer coordinator contacted me later that day. Not only was she excited to have me, but she also contacted one of the local O&P practitioners for me and organized a meeting.

I didn't get a residency out of that meeting, but I did make a valuable contact and was able to volunteer in his office. I helped out in the back when possible and was able to shadow patient assessments, fittings, and gait trainings.

I continued to volunteer with the nonprofit, aiding paratriathletes. Through this experience I met another local practitioner who wanted to help me. She allowed me to shadow her as she went to see patients at local physical therapy offices and even forwarded my resumé to a few of her contacts.

The lesson in these experiences is that you can stay active in the field even if you don't have a residency. I enjoyed volunteering and helping others. I also made friends and professional contacts, and gave back to the community. With the work experience I received while volunteering. I was able to show future employers that I was dedicated to my profession and to staying involved in any way possible.

Now I just needed a residency.

Finding and Choosing the Right Residency

While some people are precise and methodical when it comes to choosing and applying for a job, I took a different approach and scattered my resumé and cover letters to practices all over the southeastern part of the United States. However, the only responses I received were polite thank-you letters for my interest.

My next step was to broaden the search and get creative. First, I had several people look over my resumé and cover letter and did a little fine-tuning. Then I began to look at The O&P EDGE's employment classifieds on oandp.com. I contacted every company that was looking for a certified practitioner and asked if they would consider bringing on a resident instead. This is when I began to get a lot of responses and was brought in for several interviews. Some companies hadn't even considered a resident and some were about to lose previous residents and were interested in bringing on another.

By broadening my search, asking for help with my resumé, and getting creative, I went from zero opportunities to so many options that I was a little overwhelmed about how to make the right decision.

Your residency is when you build a solid foundation for developing your own personal style of care. You reinforce the fundamentals that you learned in school, and you learn new techniques and skills from the practitioners, technicians, and other professionals who you work with on a daily basis. As important as your formal education was to your professional knowledge, what you learn during residency will shape the way you practice for the rest of your career. As much as you want a residency, you want to find the right residency for you.

Think of the interview as a two-sided process. Have questions prepared and know what you are looking for in a residency program. You can usually tell within the first five minutes of an interview if you would like working with that person. But remember, you are also working for the company and with everyone else employed there. You need to decide what you are looking for. I urge you to consider all options. I would not have found the residency that I ended up taking had I not gone on an interview that I almost didn't.

Make sure you are choosing the place that is right for you. Be open and honest, be yourself, and listen to your intuition.

John Pope, MS, MSPO, CSCS, is a resident at Orthopedic Appliance, headquartered in Asheville, North Carolina.

References

  1. Plack, M. M., C. K. Wong. 2002. The evolution of the doctorate of physical therapy: Moving beyond the controversy. Journal of Physical Therapy Education 16 (1).