Motivation no issue for Rehabilitation Science PhD grad

Joanne Park leading the way for OTs to address psychosocial issues in work rehab

Erica Yeung - 12 June 2017

Imagine being a PhD student working as an occupational therapist and a University of Alberta instructor, while conducting a mass clinical research study to complete your PhD. Now imagine juggling that work load for the past six years.

That's been the life of Joanne Park, a Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine PhD graduate who is an occupational therapist by trade and a sessional instructor for the Department of Occupational Therapy.

"It's been a long time," says Park, who will be walking the stage to receive her PhD in Rehabilitation Science at Spring Convocation on June 12. "I had a very atypical PhD process because my original supervisor retired two years after I started the program."

After her original supervisor retired, Park had to switch focus and began examining the effectiveness of motivational interviewing (MI) in improving return-to-work rates with injured workers with musculoskeletal disorders.

Park, an occupational therapist of 12 years, is grateful for the change in direction.

"I had the opportunity to research and directly impact my own area of practice," says Park. "We got to run a huge clinical trial at Millard Health, where I work, which is an amazing opportunity as a PhD student."

MI is a client-centred counselling method used to enhance readiness for change by assisting individuals to identify and resolve ambivalence. MI works by evoking intrinsic motivation for change with injured workers when they have conflicted feelings about returning to work.

"They make the decision to return to work and feel empowered to do so, rather than feeling forced to," says Park.

It is a challenge for clinicians to address psychosocial barriers with injured workers, which can often be more difficult to overcome than physical injuries. Park's clinical experience inspired her to research and understand potential interventions to address this issue.

"Our approach was to either refer workers to psychology services or educational workshops, but as occupational therapists we're trained to address psychosocial barriers," explains Park. "It was unfortunate that we didn't have an approach in place to do this before."

Park's research spans into the work of physical therapy, leading her to work with Doug Gross, a professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Park's co-supervisor.

"In physical therapy we talk about psychologically informed practice, where we recognize psychological and social barriers," explains Gross. "I consider MI a form of psychologically informed practice. I think more physical therapists are gaining interest in and looking to other interventions such as MI in addition to traditional physical therapy modalities."

Park also developed a module focusing on the fundamental processes of MI for occupational therapy students in the faculty. The module was then turned into a workshop because it received such great response and demand from students. Park's passion and dedication to teaching helped her earn a Graduate Student Teaching Award in 2016.

"At times she comes across as sweet and nice, but at the same time she's very direct with the students and makes sure she challenges them," says Shaniff Esmail, associate chair for the Department of Occupational Therapy and Park's co-supervisor. "She has high expectations of the students, and she sets up a learning environment that allows them to succeed."

Park firmly believes in being a life-long learner, and she is thankful for the countless learning opportunities and exceptional mentorships that the faculty has given her. Park was once told that the silliest thing you could do is turn down someone who is willing to teach you something. She's taken that advice to heart.

"I try to not be a silly person," laughs Park. "If someone's willing to take the time to teach you, you'd be silly not to accept that offer. We can always learn and always improve."

While Park admits she'll have to put more thought into her post-graduation plans, she enjoys being an educator and instructor and wants to continue teaching. Park also wants to keep building her skill set as a research clinician, and is interested in program development to improve work rehabilitation.

"Now that we've identified an approach to address psychosocial barriers in work rehab, how can we improve what we're doing and what are the other challenges?" says Park.

When asked what she plans to do after receiving her PhD on Monday following six grueling years of being a practitioner, researcher, teacher and student, Park chuckles.

"Catch up on sleep!"