Health Sciences takes wheel with Driving Rehab program

Special to Western News

Sherrilene Classen, Director of the School of Occupational Therapy at Western, is the founding director of a new Master of Clinical Science (MClSc) in Driving Rehabilitation Therapy.

With Baby Boomers comprising the majority of drivers on the road today, a new Master of Clinical Science (MClSc) in Driving Rehabilitation Therapy will become essential training, according to program organizers.

“Drivers are getting older. Coming with being older – sometimes, not always – are medical conditions that might impact a person’s ability to drive, whether it’s visual changes, physical changes or diabetes where you might lose sensation in your feet,” said Miriam Monahan, a clinical educator, occupational therapist and driving school instructor, who will be teaching in the Driving Rehabilitation program, starting this month.

“We have a real problem globally. We want to help people maintain their mobility as long as possible. But we also want to identify medically impaired drivers and then intervene and provide assistance. That means training professionals to do comprehensive driving evaluations so they can look at the person functionally – from cognition, vision and other skills – and then act accordingly,” she explained.

This is where Driving Rehab steps in. Said to be the only program of its kind in the world, it concurrently focuses on the practice and development of specialized skills, advanced practice behaviours, leadership activities and critical appraisal of research in the area of driving rehabilitation.

Over the course of one year, through distance and on-site learning, as well as 40 hours of clinical mentorship, the program will train students to screen, assess and evaluate drivers who are medically at risk or unfit to drive.

McGill University offers similar training, although it is a certificate program, taught mostly in French, and available only to practicing occupational therapists.

“The uniqueness of our program, which is the online structure, really affords this opportunity for people across the world,” noted Sherrilene Classen, Director of the School of Occupational Therapy at Western, professor and founding director of Driving Rehab. “If somebody wants to specialize in driver rehabilitation, it’s not necessarily taught in OT (occupational therapy) school. It’s a conference here, a weekend course there.”

The new Driver Rehabilitation graduate program is based in empirical research and hands-on training – a combination of knowledge and expertise unavailable anywhere else, she added.

“There’s this huge need within our profession. Medical doctors aren’t trained to do this. The department of motor vehicles isn’t trained to do this. This isn’t about retesting someone for licencing. So, who is making these determinations that someone with a physical impairment can continue to drive or not? Occupational therapists and other health-care professionals are trained in the medical model and how impairments may impact function, and we are uniquely situated to make these decisions,” Classen continued.

Unlike the certificate at McGill, Western’s post-graduate professional degree is open to occupational therapists, as well as physical therapists, speech and language pathologists, clinical kinesiologists and other professionals working in hospitals, rehab centres and assisted-living facilities.

This is necessary specialized training, Monahan explained.

“Someone stopping a car abruptly could be because cognitive processing speed is delayed, or it could be a depth-perception issue, or a difficulty moving the foot from the gas to the brake. It takes a person with specialized training to discern what the source of the problem is and be able to provide the right intervention,” she said.

These issues are global in nature, she continued, and while drivers in North America may have access to specialized technology in their vehicles that can accommodate and correct for driver limitations, the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily have the same access to driving aids. The program aims to prepare graduates to be leaders in the field.

“Driving is an occupational enabler – it gets us from Point A to Point B. Without that, we’re not shopping, we’re not socializing, we’re not going to doctor appointments, getting our prescriptions – we’re not able to participate, and help out as well as receive,” Monahan noted.

And facilitated by one of the program graduates could help drivers across a lifespan, not just elderly drivers with medical conditions, she continued. It could help a young person with cerebral palsy learning to drive, an individual with autism, or even a person who suffered a traumatic brain injury and is looking to return to driving.

A four-pronged model marks the need for a program such as this, Classen added.

“There’s a gap in the educational system, pressures therapists experience to make these determinations, the fact that nobody is trained to do this, and it is also the result of societal pressures,” she concluded. “The Baby Boomers are rapidly aging and we want to keep them on the road as long as possible. This program is no small feat.”