UBC expands occupational therapy program in northern B.C. at UNBC

UNBC Stories
Two occupational therapy students practice a clinical skill in the classroom.
Students practicing their clinical skills in the UBC Master of Occupational Therapy program at UNBC's campus in Prince George.

Story shared via UBC Faculty of Medicine

On a cold and snowy morning, Miranda Doerksen warmly greets the residents of a long-term care center in rural Burns Lake, British Columbia (B.C.).

Today is the first day of her clinical placement for UBC’s newly expanded Master of Occupational Therapy (MOT) program. The UBC MOT program is a two-year professional master’s degree program, and the only occupational therapy degree program in B.C.

“I’m from northern B.C., so I’m really excited to be learning and training here,” says Doerksen, a first-year student. “There’s such a need for occupational therapy (OT) services here and now I’m able to get the practical skills and experience I need to best serve our communities.”

Based out of Prince George, the MOT program was expanded last fall with the goal of inspiring more OT graduates to stay and practice in northern, rural and remote communities across B.C., as well as increase access to OT services for patients.

Created with funding from the B.C. Government, the program is delivered in partnership with the University of Northern British Columbia.

“We know that students are more likely to practice in their home communities or where their training took place,” says Dr. Susan Forwell, head of UBC’s department of occupational science and occupational therapy. “This expansion provides students with the exposure they need to build deep connections with the communities, as well as learn about all the career possibilities that are in these areas.”

As integral members of healthcare teams, occupational therapists help people get back to doing what they need and want most — whether that’s teaching people how to live independently after a stroke; providing vehicle modifications so that people can drive safely; helping children with cognitive or physical disabilities participate in play with their peers; or leading group counselling sessions for people living with mental health challenges.

Improving accessibility to care for northern and rural communities

For first-year MOT student Henry Liang, the vast breadth of OT practice drew him to the field, but it was his past experience in tourism that led him to apply to UBC’s MOT program in the north.

Liang, who is originally from Richmond, lived and travelled across B.C.’s rugged Interior for work. While living with an older couple in Osoyoos, he regularly drove them to their medical appointments, which took anywhere from a few hours to an entire day.

“It’s a huge barrier for people,” he says. “And being able to fill that gap in some capacity is what motivated me to go north.”

Improving accessibility to care is also top of mind for Doerksen.

“There are so many ways that OT’s can improve accessibility and community inclusion in the north,” she says, as she helps a long-term care resident with mobility exercises. “I’m developing the skills I need to help make meaningful changes within our own infrastructures such as in our community centres, sports facilities, accessible transportation and schools.”

UBC OT students at the Vancouver and Prince George sites study the same curriculum. However, some of the coursework in Prince George has a northern and rural focus, explains Elisha Williams, assistant professor and clinical lead for fieldwork for the MOT program in Prince George.

“You’re really a jack of all trades in smaller communities, so your scope of practice can be broad. You might work in hospitals, long-term care homes, community centers and doing outreach,” she says. “And our case studies reflect that. Students also gain the exposure and experience they need through clinical placements.”

Williams says the UBC MOT program focuses on the importance of patient-centered, team-based care through inter-professional learning. The program is also expanding its focus on Indigenous wellness.

“Everything we do as OT’s is based on what the patient wants, so it’s vitally important that students know how to provide culturally safe care,” she says. “That’s why we are working with local First Nations and building our relationships throughout the region.”

For Doerksen, training in diverse communities and amongst health care teams – including doctors, nurses, social workers and psychologists – has been a powerful experience.

“Everyone works together to make these really wonderful health outcomes for their patients,” she says. “And, that’s exactly what I want to do for people in the north when I graduate.”

Building a province-wide program

At the end of her first day, Doerksen sits down with her preceptor to go over their assessments and care plans for a number of the long-term care residents.

For the next month and under supervision of her preceptor, Doerksen will help put the care plans into action by introducing new assistive equipment, educating residents on how to reduce falls and checking in on residents to make sure the plans are meeting their individual needs.

“Everyone has been incredibly supportive,” she says. “It’s an amazing experience to be able to help people regain their independence and quality of life.”

While Doerksen is busy training in Burns Lake and Liang in an acute psychiatry department in Prince George, their classmates are learning and connecting people with care in places across the province such as Prince Rupert, Vanderhoof, Campbell River and Houston.

Come this fall, a new class of UBC MOT students will begin their studies in the north further expanding the program’s reach.

Dr. Forwell says the lasting impact for northern and rural communities will be profound.

“People will be able to access care closer to home,” she says. “And have an occupational therapist who is deeply in tune with the needs of the community.”

And while the MOT program in the north is creating a network of occupational therapists across the region, Dr. Forwell and her team are also laying the groundwork for the next expansion: B.C.’s Fraser Valley.

“This is how we’re supporting northern, rural and underserviced areas,” says Dr. Forwell. “By making the program more accessible across the province and providing opportunities for students to become part of the community from day one.”