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Montana State University Billings' Student Health Services department has earned accreditation by a national body after a years-long process.

A trio of Montana colleges and universities are turning their attention to occupational therapy.

The reason is simple, said Diane Duin, dean of the College of Allied Health Professions at Montana State University Billings. Reports on the health care workforce in the state show “an increasing demand for occupational therapists now and for the foreseeable future,” she said Wednesday.

The Montana Board of Regents approved a proposal Friday for an entry-level master of science degree in occupational therapy. The new program, a joint effort between Montana State University Billings and the University of Montana, could be offered at both campuses as soon as fall 2018.

The Board of Trustees at Rocky Mountain College in Billings also recently approved a proposal for a doctorate of occupational therapy, Academic Vice President Steve Germic said. RMC is in the initial stages of accreditation to enroll its first cohort of students in January 2019.

The Montana colleges join the University of Mary, a private North Dakota-based college with a satellite campus in Billings, which offers a master’s degree in occupational therapy.

MSUB has studied the idea of instituting an OT program for about a year, something UM also was pursuing, Duin said. Such a proposal requires coordination with the Montana University System.

“Last September we sat down with University of Montana representatives and began earnestly looking at how to collaboratively put this together,” she said, adding that Reed Humphrey, dean of the College of Health Professionals & Biomedical Sciences at UM has been closely involved in the planning.

The two colleges met with the Office of Commissioner of Higher Education. They also began a conversation with the American Occupational Therapy Association, the accrediting body for academic programs.

“They gave us a couple of examples of collaboration, but not at the graduate level,” Duin said. “And what they wanted to do is accredit the collaboration, so we’re calling it a single cohort model offered on two campuses.”

This is the first time that two colleges in the system will collaborate on an accredited single-cohort two-campus program, she said. Next steps include working with Montana University System officials to craft a memorandum of understanding to guide the schools through the accreditation process.

The cost for students in the master’s degree program will be about the same at both campuses.

“We don’t want to compete on price because that would ruin the whole collaboration,” Duin said.

Technology will be used to deliver some of the courses, she said, while other classes will be face-to-face. The curriculum, already in place, is dictated by the AOTA.

“We anticipate at this point that we will share a program director, but the devil is in the details,” Duin said. “We’ll be meeting in two weeks to hammer out details. We know, in concept, what to do, and we know the end goal.”

Duin was encouraged by the approval at last week’s Board of Regents meeting. The regents were happy the two colleges are working together.

“Rather than us arm-wrestling who gets what, we want to do this together,” she said. “And they were very pleased that we were willing to start from day one together.”

For Rocky, the proposed Ph.D. in occupational therapy is the first doctorate the private Billings college will offer, Germic said. The program is predicated on approval from both the AOTA and the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

To begin the accreditation process, RMC hired Twylla Kirchen, program director of occupational therapy at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Kirchen is an RMC alumna and a Billings native, Germic said.

With construction of a new science building on campus, RMC officials have been looking for growth opportunities in health professions.

“We are looking closely at other opportunities in graduate education in general,” he said. “But we do believe that there are special opportunities in graduate health professions given the health care focus of so much of the region.”

That could include a small expansion of the physician assistant master’s degree program, Germic said. The goal is to keep it small and personalized, but a few extra slots could be added.

The college will submit its application for substantial change to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in July, and the final application is due to AOTA next April.

“Assuming all that is approved, and we fully expect it to be, we will begin recruiting the first class of students to start in January 2019,” Germic said.

Once the OT degree program is fully staffed, it will include seven full-time faculty. It will be housed on the top floor of the new science building, he said.

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.