Occupational therapists excel at overcoming the obstacles between people and their potential, and the high-demand field is about to broaden the health care horizon with a new doctorate program at Northern Arizona University.

Beginning in fall 2014, NAU will be the only public university in Arizona to offer occupational therapy, and one of a handful nationwide that will award a doctoral degree. The 33-month program, which includes a 16-week residency, will operate out of the Phoenix Biomedical Center.

Founding chair Patricia Crist speaks with conviction about the field’s person-centered philosophy, and she brings experience with establishing a “practice scholar” model at the master’s level. At NAU, she can take that approach a step further.

“The profession appears to be pushing toward the doctorate and I wanted to be on that front edge,” Crist said. A practice scholar “is not just a user of evidence but creates evidence in their own context,” she said, emphasizing the dual role of applying and producing research. “We need practitioners who can read deeper into the research, translate observed changes from interventions into outcome studies and show that they’re making a difference in people’s lives.”

According to Crist, occupational therapists fill an important niche in health care by addressing the whole person, physically and emotionally, while considering the environment in which that person lives. While some practitioners are hand specialists and stroke recovery specialists—areas most often associated with the field—most fill wider roles as creative problem solvers. She said the largest employer for occupational therapists is K-12 schools, which use them for readiness skills such as handwriting or behaviors conducive to remaining in the classroom.

“There are a lot of health care fields that do things to people,” Crist said. “Occupational therapists talk about doing things with people, as a coach and facilitator. We want you to be able to do things that are everyday parts of life.”

NAU’s program will emphasize service learning. While two new practice labs and a home simulation lab await the first cohort of students, Crist said that she is building connections with community agencies to give the students experience with people “in their natural context.”

“Students need to see people in their lifelong journey adapting to disability, chronic illness or social conditions so that they can choose strategies that will be meaningful in the long term,” Crist said.

The program is pursuing provisional accreditation while recruiting faculty and students, with plans for the first class of 24 to begin in August. They will be studying alongside NAU students in the physician assistant studies and physical therapy programs already established at the Phoenix Biomedical Center.

“We value people who love to teach new skills, to seek creative solutions to everyday challenges and to engage in meaningful relationships with clients,” Crist said, offering a profile of the type of student who might be interested in the field.

Applicants must have completed a bachelor’s or master’s degree. The program is entry-level, which means it is not a post-professional option for practicing therapists.

But recruiting shouldn’t be difficult. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook for occupational therapy is growing “much faster than average,” with a median salary of more than $72,000 per year.

Arizona, in particular, faces a shortage of health care professionals and the deficit is expected to deepen over the next decade.

“NAU’s goal is to provide high-quality health care to the people of Arizona,” Crist said. She emphasized that health care in general is turning to a community participation model, in which wellness, a balanced life and prevention become the focus. Occupational therapy embodies the positive psychology of that approach, she said.

“We’re taking sick populations, including environments, and trying to make the whole community sustainably healthier,” Crist said. “We want to find out what people’s strengths are and try to move them forward.”