Students in the Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA) degree program at Cleveland University-Kansas City (CUKC) didn’t let the COVID-19 shutdown disrupt their education. Instead, they used a telehealth platform to conduct fieldwork training with patients hundreds of miles away. The use of technology allowed them to continue their progress toward their degree while providing therapy solutions for those in need.
Part of the OTA degree program’s curriculum is the completion of fieldwork rotations, where students use their training to work with actual clients at an off-campus site. This can be done in a variety of settings, including hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, outpatient clinics, or a community-based facility. As the students were unable to travel to offsite locations due to the pandemic, they had to get creative.
It was determined that using Zoom, a video conferencing technology system, might be a possible substitute for in-person meetings. Used by many schools, businesses, and organizations to maintain contact during the COVID-19 shutdown, the technology allows for real-time communication with both video and audio. All that was needed was a partner in the experiment to test its effectiveness.
Jeanne Boone, academic fieldwork coordinator for the OTA program, found that partnership with members of the Loretto Community, a group of seniors who reside at locations worldwide. All are age 62 and above, with some in need of occupational therapy assistance. The CUKC students worked with members from Colorado, Missouri, Kentucky, and England. The residents were already familiar with the Zoom platform after using it for meetings. As it happened, it was also an excellent tool to allow the CUKC students to provide those therapy solutions.
Rachel Eisfelder, director of the OTA program at CUKC, said when the opportunity became available, she thought it might be an ideal way for her students to meet their program requirements.
“Our academic fieldwork coordinator has a connection to the Loretto Community,” Eisfelder said. “Through conversation, it was determined that due to increased isolation (because of the pandemic), this might be an opportunity for students to get what they need, while helping well elders with social participation, and to explore other needs they might have to improve function.”
According to Eisfelder, many community residents are retired teachers who are active and able to manage their daily lives. Zoom made it possible for the two sides to share a mutually beneficial relationship that allowed the Loretto participants to gain access to occupational therapy services, and to help students complete fieldwork requirements.
Eisfelder said students worked on a variety of therapy opportunities, including energy conservation, improving balance/strength/endurance, leisure activities, exploring adaptive equipment for activities of daily living (ADL), instrumental activities of daily living (IADL), wellness, and social participation.
While students usually complete fieldwork training in any variety of settings, the coronavirus changed everything. The first OTA students who participated in the telehealth meetings had previously completed an eight-week rotation in a more traditional environment but were unable to continue because of the shutdown.
OTA student, Taylor Chrisco, was one of the first students to utilize Zoom for therapy.
“Initially, I had a hard time wrapping my head around providing therapy that wasn’t going to be hands-on,” Chrisco said. “Thankfully, other practitioners had started putting out evidenced-based research for telehealth. I ended up really loving it because I was able to be super creative through the process.”
The wonders of technology made the fieldwork possible, and due to the familiarity of the Loretto Community with Zoom, the CUKC students were able to move into therapy without delays for technological instruction.
“I absolutely think it was a positive experience,” Chrisco said. “I feel very fortunate that my clients were already using Zoom, so I didn’t have to do much teaching on my end. The most difficult part was learning how to make hands-on therapy applicable to my clients in their homes.”
During these difficult times, when coronavirus has been such a disruptive force in so many ways, Eisfelder said the participants on both sides that took part in the Zoom telehealth interactions had reaped the benefits.
“This experience has been so valuable for students and the participants,” Eisfelder said. “The students were able to explore evidence-based practice with telehealth services, build relationships, and provide services to individuals, which may help them maintain their independence and function for longer.”
Eisfelder said the students took away something from this experience that will stay with them. Although they were forced to modify their therapy tactics somewhat, they were able to adapt and overcome the obstacles presented to them by COVID-19.
“I believe the students have gained new skills through this experience,” Eisfelder said. “They are more confident in their interviewing and how they interact with individuals. They have been creative with interventions for the participants, and it pushes them to explore all aspects of occupational therapy, not just the traditional.”
By the conclusion of the Summer 2020 term, there were four OTA students at CUKC that had participated in telehealth fieldwork. Eisfelder said that while it has been a solid learning experience for the students, it has also served as a guide for how to provide occupational therapy to those who are isolated.