Continuing Education Shortage for Techs: Fact or Fiction?

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It’s official: There is no vast conspiracy to suppress O&P technicians and prevent an intellectual uprising, research reveals. The O&P EDGE was prompted to investigate by a recent posting to an O&P discussion group that questioned the availability of resources to help technicians improve their skills and knowledge, specifically, whether or not the only viable way for technicians to learn and share new skills and techniques is by reading trade magazines and apprenticing under experts.

Moran

We discovered some unexpected facts, however. Interestingly, the people who jumped on board this discussion were not techs thirsting for enlightenment opportunities, but rather a number of coordinators and purveyors of educational opportunities who were shocked and concerned that the posted rumor might be true. Tina Moran, senior director of membership, operations, and meetings for the American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association (AOPA), followed up with her own query, and when she received no responses, she consulted experts in the field—including the AOPA planning committee and members of the Orthotic & Prosthetic Technological Association (OPTA). "The sentiment was the same from everybody: there's tons of education geared toward technicians. I really don't think this is an issue."

In addition, Moran actively polls people who post to Facebook, LinkedIn, and various listservs to track what people may be looking for that AOPA can provide. She says that she has never run across this claim before—anywhere.

Learning opportunities are out there. This year, the AOPA National Assembly will dedicate a full day to education geared toward technicians in material science, she points out. The conference will also feature more than 30 workshops, half of which are specifically for technicians.

Harris

Heather Harris, director of the American Board for Certification in Orthotics, Prosthetics & Pedorthics (ABC) continuing education programs, also feels that the purported lack of continuing education opportunities for technicians is a perception rather than a reality. She refers concerned parties to the ABC website's continuing education page where more than 100 different opportunities of various types—from live courses to distance learning—are listed. "There's a very good mix…," she says.

The Board of Certification/Accreditation, International (BOC) website (www.bocusa.org) also offers a list of current BOC-approved continuing education opportunities—many of which are offered by manufacturers and distributors.

"I've run the numbers of those who have been revoked for lack of continuing education among the technician community," Harris says, "and it's not a huge number; it's consistent with every other credential. I would say that based on those who renew their certifications, the technicians are participating in continuing education."

On the other hand, she expressed surprise when her research also revealed that the number of certified technicians attending technician-specific programs offered by the American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists (the Academy), AOPA, and the Western and Midwestern Orthotic & Prosthetic Association (WAMOPA) "is not impressive. Since obviously it takes money to present these programs, if the technicians are not coming, I don't quite see how it's financially defensible."

Moran's findings are similar. "Looking at those who scanned in to attend last year's technician programs, I would guess it was less than 25 percent of our techs. It was more practitioners than techs. That's understandable—they want to keep their education current, and maybe they're taking it back to their technicians."

Edwards

Jane Edwards, vice president/partner, PrimeCare O&P Network, agrees, and points out that the PrimeFare seminars' tracks for techs—which used to be presented every year—are now based on supply and demand. "Last year, I was disappointed because in response to requests and attendance commitments for about a dozen technicians, we put on a program, and only five techs showed up. I don't think the problem is that the courses aren't there. I think that in these economic times, owners are being careful with budgets and hesitate to spend the money to send techs to the seminar. In fact, if we could be assured that we would have enough attendees to make it worthwhile for our presenters, we would be happy to re-institute our PrimeFares' tech tracks."

Muller

Courses are definitely available, agrees Mark Muller, MS, CPO, FAAOP, Academy president. "The Academy has always focused on external education for practitioners, including technicians. "We have created 150 online education modules on the Paul E. Leimkuehler Online Learning Center (OLC). Approximately 15 percent have technical methods or material comparison that would help to increase the body of knowledge for a technician or practitioner. The modules don't necessarily focus directly on the technician but on the fabrication science of it. We are working on ramping up offerings in fabrication sciences to help meet the needs of our field so we don't lose those technically innovative skills that make our profession unique."

It's possible, Harris says, that technicians are concerned by a lack of new offerings. "The technician community needs to provide input on what types of information they would like to see at these meetings. It is a challenge for sponsors to develop programs to accommodate the needs of all participants. Suggestions would be greatly appreciated."

Glass

There's no argument about the very real contemporary need for such technician-oriented continuing education. Carey Glass, CPO, LPO, FAAOP, technician program chair for the Academy's Annual Meeting and Scientific Symposium, points out the tremendous amount of new engineering concepts and techniques, not to mention new materials, available for technicians. "We've never had a plethora like this of new technology in such a short span of time. A technician is stuck between a rock and a hard place if he's working for a company and he entered the field ten years ago or more. Unless he has basically made it his business to go out and learn about these new products, he's behind the times. The opportunities don't come to him."

How specific do those opportunities have to be? Several sources agree that course offerings need not be overtly fabrication-specific to be relevant and valuable to technicians. "I don't think it's fair to narrow it down," Harris comments. "A technician can also benefit from attending a program geared toward a practitioner—for example the i-LIMB (Touch Bionics, Livingston, Scotland) or RHEO KNEE (Össur, Reykjavik, Iceland). It's very helpful for them to be aware of how these products work because they are the ones behind the scenes who are going to put the components together."

Wickman

"I also think a lot of technicians sell themselves short," notes Tony Wickman, CTPO, CEO of Freedom Fabrication, Havana, Florida. "They claim there isn't any technical education and wonder what we can do to get more. My response is there are no continuing education credits available in the United States that are not appropriate to a technician—billing and coding, anatomy and physiology, pathology, gait analysis, whatever. We have to share knowledge with the practitioners, and that's a two-way street."

Is Accessibility/Affordability the Real Issue?

Several sources speculated that affordability was increasingly an impediment to the pursuit of educational opportunities for everyone—not just techs.

"Unfortunately, it costs these companies money to put on seminars, and they need to recoup their costs from the registration fees. That's a fact of life," Harris says.

Attitudes toward the pursuit of professional knowledge vary, but ABC- and BOC-required continuing education units (CEUs) for certifees make attitudes a non-issue."I think ABC mandated a really good idea," Wickman says. A lot of people have been kind of pushed kicking and screaming into enriching themselves. Many just don't see the value in continuing education until after they've gotten it. They complain about it the whole time, and then talk about it Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday when they come back, saying what a great thing it was!

"But that's okay," Wickman concludes. "If I have to drag you kicking and screaming into one of my programs, I'm cool with that."

Mattear

At the opposite end of the reluctance spectrum, however, are a handful of dedicated and distinguished technician-educators who are passionate about the educational needs of their field and the possibilities that desperately need to be pursued. Wickman and Brad Mattear, MA, CFo, speak with near-lyrical reverence about the vital importance of allowing techs to achieve nirvana through outside-the-box learning opportunities that allow them to creatively explore new options and solutions through hands-on experience rather than restrictive and often boring traditional methods.

"We were all on the same pathway to discovery, and that is such a powerful thing," Wickman explains. "I think it's ultimately what draws most technicians into the field—that we're one of the last frontiers of commonsense engineering. That path—that discovery process—is very attractive to people."

"To put a bunch of technicians in a fancy ballroom at a hotel is like taking a fat kid to a buffet and putting handcuffs on him," Matter says. "It's not right. Let them do what they do best—let them heat up some plastic and get their hands dirty. Being able to collaborate at a peer-to-peer opportunity is a wonderful thing."

Hutnick

Glenn Hutnick, CPO, CTP, FAAOP, chair of the Academy's Fabrication Sciences Society, agrees, describing "packed" exploration-style hands-on education sessions at the last Academy meeting where presenters were still answering questions half an hour after the session. "Ironically, the tech program which immediately followed it—a lecture on component selection based on activity level—attracted only four people.

"People want to know how and why," Hutnick says. "There's a real thirst for this knowledge." (Author's note: For more information, see Hutnick's article, "Charting a Course for the Future of O&P Fabrication")

Unfortunately, Mattear says that too many business owners are deterred from educating their techs because of the lack of an immediate and obvious return on their investment.

Glass agrees. "You've got registration fees that are humongous to begin with, so a company is likely to say, ‘Well, we don't have to send everybody this month—who needs the most credits?' Well, that's the practitioner, so he's the one who goes."

Hutnick proposes that the Academy host seminars in tech schools with lab access. "Or get a facility to host such a seminar for one day. [Technicians] would rather sit in a lab and learn than in a lecture hall in Orlando." And the option might be considerably more accessible and affordable as well.

"Even if the tech had to drive a day to get there, they could stay in a place for $89 a night as opposed to $169—and they're not spending $30 for coffee and a bagel…at Starbuck's, either," he points out. "Do it on a more frugal basis."

Alternatively, hosting a program at your own facility, allowing technicians to come in and cast patients, is worthwhile, he recommends. When Hutnick hosted a program at his facility, he says, "We had to shut our lab down for two days, and it was kind of bedlam, but everyone learned, and every time we hold such an event, we pick up a client or two. That's something these companies need to look at."

Glass also suggests that manufacturers focus on producing their infomercials or workshops with the technician in mind, as well as the practitioner—and include techs in the loop when sales reps make their calls to update a facility's practitioners.

Newberry

Taking their shows on the road rather than offering product education only in their own labs would also be a boon. Many companies will bring their course to your location if you can arrange to have a minimum of five to ten people present. "A lot of people aren't aware of this and don't take advantage of the opportunity—and they should," he encourages.

Jim Newberry, BOCPO, BOCPD, agrees, pointing to the difficulty of finding and attracting qualified technicians, despite offering competitive pay in a high-priced metropolitan area.

"The outcome I'm seeing from technicians is not there—but where can they get it? I get more from Otto Bock coming in and spending two days with my technicians than sending them to school someplace for a week."

What's on the Horizon?
What Should Be on the Horizon?

  • Textbooks for techs are urgently needed. "Everything that is available for technicians as far as advancing educational opportunities is antiquated at best," Mattear says. "AOPA used to make a shop manual, but that shop manual hasn't been printed since the '70s." Glass agrees, "We have a technician system that's still using books from 1974. Obviously one of the first things we have to do is update the textbooks for technicians."
  • Technical standards should be developed and acknowledged industry-wide—a necessary preliminary step to developing any textbook or reference work. "For instance," Glass says, "if you have an obese patient, no one has ever done the test to establish which socket you should make. If you ask five different technicians, you're going to get five different layups."
  • More thinking outside the box would be a plus, Newberry says. "I use Skype a lot for consults with some of the therapists before I go to see the patient, so we all know what I'm going to do when I get there. It's worked for me. With prices going up—especially gas—we need to get creative."
  • AOPA's new online education site (www.aopanetonline.org/education) will include videotaped sessions from their annual National Assembly. Some videos are accompanied by a quiz to allow participants to earn continuing education credits. "We plan to include some technician education into that module over the next year," Moran says.
  • The Academy's fresh focus on education is a priority of its new president. "We have been discussing how to develop technical science tracks such as a ‘Lost Arts' series or capturing and archiving our veteran technicians' [techniques] so their art will not be lost as they move into retirement," Muller says. "The Academy's Fabrication Sciences Society has begun to discuss the possibility of creating a hands-on course that could be given at multiple venues....

More and better opportunities lie ahead. Those currently providing continuing education are recognizing they have a sizeable technical audience ready and waiting, Wickman believes. "Over the past five years, we've seen a tremendous shift. It's been a while now since I've seen a state program that didn't have a technical program. And soon the manufacturers, presenters, and organizers will recognize that they, too, derive value from these programs. I get a lot of really good data; people ask stimulating questions and they drop priceless little tidbits on you."

Mattear is also looking ahead to the rainbow's end. "More progressive companies are utilizing outsourcing every day; that's why we're starting to see this evolving trend bringing more attention to the technical world. The technical world is still 20 years behind the practitioner—but it's getting better!"

Judith Philipps Otto is a freelance writer who has assisted with marketing and public relations for various clients in the O&P profession. She has been a newspaper writer and editor and has won national and international awards as a broadcast writer-producer.

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