Creating a Great ATP

What Qualities & Experiences Are Most Important to Seating & Wheeled Mobility Success?

puzzle pieces in the shape of a tornado


At the 2019 International Seating Symposium (ISS) in Pittsburgh, Mark Schmeler, Ph.D., OTR/L, ATP, the director of the ISS when it’s hosted in the United States every other year, told attendees that Assistive Technology Professionals (ATPs) are leaving the complex rehab technology (CRT) industry at a faster rate than they are being replaced. Though CRT is growing at 4.8 percent per year, the incoming rate of ATPs is just 1.8 percent, while the retirement rate for ATPs is 3.4 percent per year. The average age of ATPs, Schmeler said at the time, was 52 years. That’s 10 years older than the age (42 years) of the average American worker.

The industry has been responding. More seating and wheeled mobility courses and specialties are being offered at the university level, while some CRT providers have created mentorships and career paths to nurture potential ATPs and provide them with the education they’ll need to succeed. Still, so much of an ATP’s day-to-day responsibilities isn’t easily captured in a classroom lecture or a textbook.

At a time when the industry is working hard to recruit, educate and raise up the next generation of ATPs, we asked current industry members what qualities are most important to an ATP’s success. In a survey, we asked participants to rate the importance of different skills and qualities, and then we asked them to share which qualities they think are most critical.

To encourage participants to be honest and expansive with their answers, we asked for their names and titles, but offered to keep that information confidential.

Participants were self selecting; we extended the invitation to the CRT industry via our newsletter, social media, and an e-mail campaign. We didn’t incentivize the survey.

Who Took the Survey?

The survey was open to CRT industry members; nearly 100 percent of respondents said they worked or had worked within the industry. Because we asked respondents to list all relevant academic and professional credentials and certifications, many participants gave more than one answer: Some were clinicians who also have the ATP credential, or ATPs who also have management responsibilities. Responses are rounded to the nearest percentage point. Occupational and Physical Therapy designations represent all levels (bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral) of degrees.

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Length of Service

Not surprisingly, most survey respondents are industry veterans who have dedicated many years to complex rehab technology clients. Results were rounded to the nearest percentage point.

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Important Traits: ATPs Working As Clinicians

For an ATP working as a clinician, we asked how important the following traits are on a scale of 1 (Not important at all) to 5 (Extremely important). Scores shown are the averages.

Clinical knowledge is at the forefront of this job, but participants thought a formal degree less important than wisdom gained from working directly with clients.

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Important Traits: ATPs Working As Suppliers

We asked the same questions about ATPs working as equipment suppliers/providers. As you might expect given the focus for an ATP supplier, knowledge of available technology was deemed more important — in fact, the most important skill — as was knowledge of funding policies. A formal degree got the lowest score here, perhaps an acknowledgment of how valuable hands-on experience is for this particular position.

important traits of ATPs working as supplierschart

The Top 3 Qualities

We then added a skill — the ability to troubleshoot during the equipment procurement process — and asked respondents to choose the three most important ATP skills or qualities, regardless of whether that ATP was working as a clinician or a supplier. Survey participants gave each quality a score of 1 (for the most important), 2 (second-most important), 3 (third-most important), or “Not among the top 3 most important.”

We then weighted the scores to come up with the top three:

#1: Clinical knowledge of seating/wheeled mobility and function edged out the second-place finisher by just 4 points.

#2: On-the-job knowledge gained by personal experience finished second, but actually received the highest number of first-place votes of any skill/quality listed.

#3: Knowledge of current seating and mobility equipment choices, because this is the other half of the “know-your-client equation.

Honorable mentions: Emotional intelligence was #4, and Knowledge of funding and documentation requirements was #5. After that, there was a big gap, statistically speaking, between the top five and the last five.

What Else Is Important?

To keep the survey user friendly, we pre-populated ATP qualities we thought were important. But in the final part of the survey, respondents were asked to expand on the abilities and qualities they feel are necessary for an ATP to be successful.

“I have always strongly believed that there needs to be some ‘formal’ education to be an ATP supplier,” said one clinician. “There is no other field that allows no formal education, and then allows direct contact with and decisions about clients. That, in combination with therapists who ‘don’t feel like’ doing seating evals or documentation makes me worry about our clients. I know this is a negative view, but a huge concern.”

Keeping the client at the center of the process, from assessment through fitting and equipment procurement, was a recurring theme. “Probably comes into emotional intelligence,” said one participant, “but the ability to listen and respond to the priorities of each individual is very important. That sense of working with a client jointly towards a common goal is so important. The ability to set clear goals and judge the success of outcomes via these goals is also the key to dissecting what needs to change or improve for current and future clients, to improve outcomes, or more importantly, the perceived success of outcomes, which are not always the same thing!”

“The organization I work for has a policy of communication with clients every 10 days by the ATP,” said a commenter. “This policy includes repair clients as well as new rehab orders.”

“You need to be a kind and intelligent person who listens to the customer’s needs and tries to incorporate them into the clinical outcome with any equipment,” a respondent said. “People need to know that they have been listened to, and if you are unable to give them what they want, then it needs to be explained to them in a kind way and all of their questions answered, no matter how unimportant to you that may be.”

“Willingness to advocate for the client’s needs and provide equipment that is the most appropriate, with profit margins as a secondary concern,” said a respondent.

On the business side, respondents emphasized professionalism and organizational skills. “Timeliness, attention to detail, excellent communication skills, both written and verbal,” one said. “Time management with appointments and order process,” said a second. “Follow-through,” said a third, in capital letters. “Clear conversations with teammates regarding assistance and a responsiveness to team.”

In fact, teamwork was another popular theme. “Respect for their staff and fellow employees” was one comment. Another said, “Belief in team approach, willingness to learn, willingness to go the extra mile for the patient, an expert in teaching.” A pediatric specialist said, “Willingness to collaborate between therapists/engineers and non-degree ATPs. Collaboration for the pediatric population is also difficult between clinical settings and school or private therapists who do not work in seating clinics. It remains essential that the team knows the equipment user, as well as the equipment itself.”

A commenter brought up the importance of professionalism to the future of CRT: “Commitment to the viability of the industry. Not taking every available dollar off of the table, but being prudent with prescription and insurance funds available to patients. Being a community advocate and not inflating the industry by selling the kitchen sink to every patient.”

And there was plenty of input that referred to intangibles.

“Creativity and perseverance,” said one comment. “The ATP should be excited about their role, which allows a much more involved provider,” said a second.

“Patience [and] thoroughness as far as asking as many questions during the eval process so you can properly evaluate equipment, as well as get to know your patient,” said another. “What are their goals, fears and objectives? What obstacles will they face day to day?”

“Pay special attention to your client and their caregiver’s capabilities, desires and concerns,” a respondent advised.

“The ability to understand things from a client’s perspective,” said a participant, “and make suggestions on how to improve function and support to achieve greater independence.” And one participant simply said, “Empathy.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Mobility Management.

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