Director of Rehabilitation Services

Director of Rehabilitation Services – Jennifer Mitchell

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This week’s spotlight features an occupational therapist who was identified as leadership material early in her career. She is now a director of rehabilitation services, as well as co-director of performance improvement. Learn how she planned her career by being communicative with her managers!

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What is your full name and title at your current job?

Jennifer Mitchell, MSOT, OTR/L
Director of Rehabilitation Services, Co-Director of Performance Improvement
Paradise Valley Hospital

Where are you located? 

San Diego, CA

Where did you go to OT school, and what year did you graduate?

California State University, Dominguez Hills. MSOT. Graduated 2012

What did you do when you first finished school, and for how long?

I worked at a skilled nursing facility for about a year after graduation. The majority of my patient caseload was long-term care and other chronic/psychological conditions.

What did you do after that, and for how long?

After that, I worked as a primary OT on a rehabilitation care unit (acute rehab) for a year while also gaining some experience in hand therapy and ergonomics. 

What did you enjoy about your early roles? What didn’t you enjoy?

The skilled nursing job taught me to be flexible and caring in my treatment approaches.

I learned to have a tough skin and to not take my patients’ reactions personally; it required me to take a step back and understand things from their perspective.

In acute rehab I learned the value of a team-based/interdisciplinary approach, not only with other therapists but with nursing, physician, dietary, leadership, social work/case management, and other departments. 

The constant emphasis on “minutes”/billing/productivity was the most difficult part of my clinical roles.  The skilled nursing position was the most difficult as this was the primary focus of the company that I worked for, rather quality care or outcomes

At what point did you realize you wanted to do something non-clinical, and why?

When I had the opportunity to be trained in ergonomics I initially was driven to expand my knowledge, but quickly grew to love the relationships that ergonomics helped me to build with other departments and hospital leaders. I began to see patient care beyond the limited scope of a therapist. Quality patient care requires support at every level of the building. 

What are you doing these days?

Currently I am the director for rehabilitation services. I oversee the operations of all the therapists of my hospital (acute, acute rehab, and outpatient) as well as act as the administrator of our rehab unit. I help guide decision-making as it pertains to strategic planning, financial management, patient/family satisfaction, among other things and act as a bridge between my staff and administration/corporate.

As the co-director of performance improvement, I develop and integrate policies/processes throughout the hospital to improve quality, efficiency, safety, and outcomes for our patients and business practices. I also help to ensure that we are aware of changes in regulatory requirements and prepare the hospital employees to ensure survey-readiness and accreditation measures are met. 

Are you still treating patients, or are you solely non-clinical?

I no longer have scheduled patient care but when my day and our patient needs allow for it I do provide some treatment. I also assist my staff with an extra pair of hands or eyes from time to time.

If you’re still treating patients, about what percentage of your time is spent clinically vs. non-clinically?

I rarely have the opportunity to participate in direct patient care anymore. 

How long have you been in your current role? 

I have been the director of rehabilitation services for about a year, and the co-director of performance improvement for 4 months.

How did you find your job? Did you apply or find it through a connection? 

When I began with my current employer, I spoke eagerly with my supervisor(s) regarding my interest in being a rehabilitation manager at some point. As opportunities became available, I was offered opportunities to advance and was mentored into my DOR role. 

Did you do anything special to your resume and cover letter to land the job? 

No, my advancement was part of a succession plan as my supervisor(s) were relocating and/or retiring. 

What was the interview like for the role?  

Before I first moved into a non-clinical supervisor role, I participated in a group interview with the other managers of the rehab department along with an interview with my OT peers to determine expectations for both myself and them and ensure it would be a successful transition for all of us.

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Did you get a specific director of rehabilitation certification or anything like that?

I love school/education so I have attended several advanced certifications during my career. I am currently enrolled/plan to start my MBA program this fall to grow in my understanding of the business side of healthcare. 

Editor’s Note: MedBridge has several certifications and CEU courses designed to help clinicians rise to the challenge of new roles in leadership. Check out some of the options here!

If you advanced through the company to get to where you are, what are some of the things you did to stand out, take initiative, and advance? 

I sought any opportunity to learn new skills, take on various roles in the department and throughout the hospital.

I served as a “super user” when rolling out new programs, participated as one of the educators for new employee orientation, offered to help with scheduling/cross coverage in all areas of the hospital, volunteered to help with side projects/data collection/form development.

Basically, I volunteered for anything that would expand my knowledge base and role within the organization. When possible, I would network with other departments and leaders within the hospital. 

How have people reacted to you leaving patient care?

Overall I feel like it has been well received. I believe that my team is happy that I am able to manage the administrative duties/responsibilities to the best of my ability so that they can focus on their patient care. 

What’s a typical day or week in the life like for you? What types of tasks and responsibilities fill your time?

It varies quite drastically, especially now that I’ve stepped into the PI role. There are usually at least 2-3 meetings at day (sometimes much more), including utilization review, safety briefings, team/manager meetings, committees and other urgent smaller meetings.

I audit charts, approve timecards, review emails, touch base with staff members as needed, and prepare presentations/reports. I used to do daily scheduling and order DME for patients but have since passed those duties along to some of my willing staff to free my time for some of the other responsibilities. 

What are some of the challenges of your role? What are the rewards?

Time management and prioritization are probably the biggest challenges—my day can be quite varied and demanding, and it can be difficult to prioritize when you have a lot of simultaneous requests. 

When you have the opportunity to see positive and tangible changes/improvements it makes every bit of the struggle and frustrations worthwhile. Being able to create a positive environment/culture for my team and our patients is a huge motivator for me. 

How do you think working as an OT prepared you for this role? Which skills transferred?  

Being an OT helped me to view patient-care from a top-down approach, I feel like that helps with transitioning into management as your team becomes “your caseload” in a way, and it’s important to see how the parts affect the whole when you’re developing your team.

Rather than treating movement systems, I’m now treating people systems—and this can be quite complex and challenging! I also feel that working as a clinician helped me to be creative/outside-the-box in my thought process, which has served me well in my current role many times. The foundational ethics are also something that I’ve taken with me as my career has progressed.

Roughly speaking, how are the hours compared to patient care?

It’s just a different setup being salaried. I don’t get to “clock out” at the end of the day. My phone is constantly by my side, and I often spend my vacations still checking emails and dialing into phone conferences.

I review reports and prepare for meetings on evenings and weekends. I would say I probably work around 45-50 hours a week on campus, but it’s difficult to quantify the time I spend answering texts/phone calls/emails and other various “off duty” work as well. 

What is the ballpark director of rehabilitation services salary?

While the pay is definitely higher, I do feel that there is a balance with the work I do outside normal work hours, as noted above.

What are some director of rehab tips for success?

I would say you have to be calm and empathetic, and you should have the ability to be direct and have strong communication skills.

You have to be willing to compromise but also be able to assert your priorities, especially if they are related to safety concerns.

Being “friends” with everyone isn’t a necessity, but being the type of person that your peers/superiors and subordinates respect is important. 

Do you work remotely or on-site?

On site. 

Does your organization hire PT, OT, or SLP professionals into non-clinical roles? If so, what type of roles?

Yes! Other than management, we hire PTs, OTs, and SLPs into the role of Intake Liaison/Coordinator for Acute Rehab. I imagine there are also lots of roles that therapists would be well suited to within a hospital organization, but none that specifically pursue therapists necessarily.

Editor’s Note: I met Jenny when she was doing hand therapy and I was a PRN rehab liaison! Here’s a pic from circa 2015 🙂

Jennifer Mitchell Director of Rehabilitation Services and her crew
L to R: The Non-Clinical PT in her first non-clinical role, Kirsten Young (OT), Charlene Jamula (rehab liaison/OT), Jenny Mitchell (OT), Rachel Sup (OT supervisor and head of intake at the time). Love and miss this crew <3

Did you read any books, take any courses, or do anything special overall to get you where you are today?

I strongly recommend “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz. I’m currently working on “The Fifth Discipline” by Peter Senge*. These are books I’ve started after I moved into a non-clinical role so not necessarily anything that helped me get to where I am today. 

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What is a typical career path for someone in your role?

Well, my predecessor stayed as Director of Rehabilitation Services for 30+ years, so that’s frequently the end of the career road for many OTs if they choose this path!

What is next for you? What do you want to do with your career long-term?

I’ve actually started to consider hospital administrator as a potential long-term goal.

I will have to see how I feel after I complete my MBA, though. I would also love to teach one day, and hopefully inspire another generation of therapists as I have been inspired.

What would you recommend to someone who is considering going into a role like yours?

The “four agreements” are my personal guide: 

  1. Be impeccable with your word
  2. Don’t take anything personally
  3. Don’t make assumptions
  4. Always do your best.

Follow these, and they can guide you through almost everything! 

What would you like to change most in your profession, and why? How would you propose doing so?

Overall, one of my biggest frustrations with therapy in general has been the endless push on quantity: minutes and/or units of service. I would love to see it return to a quality-based and patient-centric profession.

Unfortunately, this probably needs to be driven by 3rd party payor changes in methodology, which requires extensive research/data to present on how quality/patient-centered care improves outcomes and basically lowers their costs in the long term.

Basically, we need more researchers in our fields and, likely, collaboration with other well-respected and published medical professionals. 

If you could give yourself one piece of career advice you wish you had during your OT school program, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions!

If you could teach anything to today’s graduate students in your profession, what would it be?

Discover what motivates you. If it’s money, please look at other careers—effective therapists require a dedication that goes beyond fiscal rewards. 

Do you have any special advice for others who want to follow in your footsteps?

Strong communication skills are the foundation of a healthy workplace. Hone them and they can take you far! 

Thanks for your insight, Jennifer!

Management is one of the many career tracks covered in Non-Clinical 101!

27 career paths, 50+ non-clinical resume and cover letter templates, LinkedIn and networking tips, interview and negotiation strategies, and guided insights to make your career transition seamless and FUN!
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