New OT doctorate programs solidify UAB as leader in field

The new program, inspired by inquiries from both practicing alumni and current occupational therapy students, is designed with post-professional students in mind.

Written by: Haley Herfurth

Media contact: Adam Pope,

physical therapy studentDespite having not held its first class, the OTD program is ranked No. 1 in the Best Online Colleges for Value by SR Education Group based on tuition costs and UAB’s academic strength score.This fall, UAB’s School of Health Professions will enroll its first cohort of 25 students in its new clinical doctorate in occupational therapy degree (OTD) program, the first of its kind in Alabama.

Proposed several years ago by Elizabeth Barstow, Ph.D., associate professor in the school, and Department of Occupational Therapy professor Laura Vogtle, Ph.D., the new online, post-professional doctorate program began accepting applications in January after being approved by the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees this past fall.

Barstow and Vogtle, who directs the post-professional OTD program, surveyed existing OTD programs across the country and examined professional documents and standards to create a version that maximizes existing UAB offerings and newly created courses while catering to the needs of post-professional students. The degree is designed to be earned entirely online while participants are enrolled part time to accommodate working occupational therapists who can take only one or two courses per semester.

“We cater to working adults and understand that people who commit to the OTD program have work, families and other responsibilities,” said Barstow, a recipient of the 2018 President’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. “The curriculum is designed for that particular person. It’s an online program with flexibility.”

UAB’s creation of a post-professional OTD program also paved the way for another new program: an entry-level OTD program for students who have degrees in other fields but want to become occupational therapists. Curriculum for the entry-level OTD is being developed, Barstow says.

UAB’s move predated a mandate by the American Occupational Therapy Association that entry-level degree requirements for occupational therapists should rise to the doctoral level by July 2027, effectively placing UAB ahead of the curve in this field. Barstow says inquiries from practicing alumni and occupational therapy students alerted them to changing tides in the field.

Degree details

The OTD program offers three separate tracks: a generalist track applicable across practice settings, a low-vision rehabilitation track, and a health care quality and safety track. The low-vision rehab program is an extension of the school’s graduate certificate program in low-vision rehabilitation, which Barstow directs and which earned the 2017 Envision Oculus Award for its impact on improving the lives of people with low vision. One of the courses Barstow instructs in the certificate program, “Foundations in Low Vision Rehabilitation II,” received the 2017 UAB Provost’s Transformative Online Course Award.

elizabeth barstow webElizabeth Barstow, Ph.D.During their survey of other OTD programs offered to post-professional students, only one other offered any courses devoted to low-vision training, Barstow says.

“Now, students who want to focus on low-vision rehab can earn both their OTD and graduate certificate at the same time,” she added.

The health care quality and safety track, formed in partnership with the Department of Health Services Administration, offers a graduate certificate enabling occupational therapists who want to develop their leadership skills move into management positions. Students pursuing an OTD on the health care quality and safety track can earn their certificate at the same time, as with the low-vision rehab track.

“We saw the need developing,” Barstow said. “We knew we already had the low-vision rehabilitation and health care quality and safety certificates in place at UAB, and it just seemed like a great fit for us to go ahead and offer this new doctorate..”

A promising start

Despite having not held its first class, the OTD program was ranked No. 1 earlier this year in the Best Online Colleges for Value by SR Education Group based on tuition costs and UAB’s academic strength score, which is based on average college entrance exam scores provided by the National Center for Education Statistics.

“We were excited,” Barstow said of earning the No. 1 ranking, “but also shocked, because we hadn’t yet admitted a class.”

Enrollments in the OTD program have also spiked enrollments for the low-vision and health care quality and safety certificate programs, which can be dually earned with the OTD. The fall’s enrollment numbers for the certificate programs are higher than ever, Barstow says, and attributes that rise to diversifying options for interested students.

“The programs feed into each other and make the other more robust,” she said. “When we are able to offer diversity in different degree paths, it’s more interesting for occupational therapists who want to continue their educations.”