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Until now, Montana was one of only four states without an occupational therapy program, compounding efforts to address the statewide shortage of occupational therapists.

Currently, there is one occupational therapist for every 2,847 Montanans. Waiting lists are legendary. Those who leave the state to become physical therapists seldom return.

To help fill the void, Montana has opened doors to a master’s program in occupational therapy in Billings. There are 12 students enrolled from Minnesota, Connecticut, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Montana.

“The goal is for states to ‘grow their own’ occupational therapy practitioners,” said Neil Harvison, director of accreditation for the Maryland-based American Occupational Therapy Association. “This new program will help increase the number of skilled health professionals and meet the population’s growing demand for occupational therapy services.”

The 2 ½-year program, which costs about $50,000, is offered through the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., which has for years offered educational programming in Billings. The first year of the program emphasizes pediatrics; the second focuses on adult care. The final six months are clinical rotations.

The idea to expand the university’s occupational therapy program into Billings began two years ago. The school found itself flush with applicants and was rejecting half of them — many of them from Eastern Montana.

Logic dictated the expansion into Montana, said Dr. Janeene Sibla, director of the Occupational Therapy Program at the University of Mary.

“We are absolutely thrilled to be there,” Sibla said. “The program is a good fit for the university’s mission of serving the needs of people of the region and beyond.”

A survey earlier this year showed that there were 353 licensed occupational therapists in Montana and 85 occupational therapy assistants. Alaska is the only state with fewer occupational therapists.

Occupational therapy job opportunities in the United States are expected to increase 33 percent over the next 10 years.

Interest in the program has been “so intense,” program leaders have been reluctant to market it, said Paula Kitzenberg, assistant professor and site coordinator of the Billings program, which is located at 3320 Second Ave. N. More than 60 people applied this year for the 24 slots available in the Bismarck and Billings programs. Plans are already underway to add an additional faculty member in Billings next year and open up more slots.

The program is also receiving support from the medical community. Billings Clinic, in fact, will serve as a rotation site for the students as they hone their skills.

“Occupational therapy is a must for any organization seeking to provide a comprehensive approach to therapy services, but along with physical and speech therapists, there continues to be a significant demand,” said Chad Miller, director of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Billings Clinic. “This is a win for Billings and the state of Montana.”

The inaugural class holds bachelor's degrees in a variety of disciplines, including psychology, exercise science, communication and rehabilitation. Some are looking for a career change; others are looking to fulfill a deeper calling.

Kevin Sullivan, 31, of Mattapoisett, Mass., has been working for a children’s toy company for the past seven years and wanted a change.

“I want to do something to help people,” Sullivan said. He was accepted to an occupational therapy program in Atlanta, Ga., but at $80,000, it was cost-prohibitive.

Ashley Leier, 23 of Moorhead, Minn., said though the Billings program wasn’t her first choice, she is thrilled with how it’s unfolding. “It is way better than an online course,” she said. “It’s so cool to have a professor here.”

Being able to pursue her passion — and stay in Billings where she has family support — was a great fit, she said. “Montana has been in need of an occupational therapy program for a long, long time.”

The advent of an occupational therapy program is the latest effort in the state to train health care professionals in areas where there are dire shortages. Billings Clinic announced earlier this year that it is starting an internal-medicine program to train primary-care physicians for the region. It is the first of its kind in Montana and Wyoming. The program was accredited in May. The program will open to the first class of students in July 2014.

Montana is also home to the Montana Family Residency Program at RiverStone Health in Billings and the Family Medicine Residency of Western Montana in Missoula. RiverStone Health also has a dental residency program.

Occupational therapy program leaders are in the process of seeking accreditation and have achieved “developing status.” An on-site accreditation visit is expected in 2014-15.

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