New physical therapy doctorate gains pre-accreditation status

Contact: Jeanne Baron

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University's new Doctor of Physical Therapy program has gained status as a candidate for accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education.

Dr. Stacie Fruth, the Department of Physical Therapy's founding chair, says earning candidate status involves years of intensive development work and is a pre-accreditation milestone for physical therapy programs.

"Achieving it means the accreditation commission is confident that you're absolutely prepared--everything is in place and has proven to be at or above the established standards," Fruth says. "We'll be assessed again when our first cohort is close to completing the program. If we're still in compliance, which we expect to be, our program will be granted full accreditation before our first cohort graduates."

Fruth having discussion with two students.

Fruth gives students pointers during the patient care skills course she co-teaches.

The WMU Board of Trustees, following years of preparatory work, approved establishing the physical therapy department and doctorate in 2015 in the College of Health and Human Services.

Fruth came on board two years later and has been building both from scratch, handling everything from finding a physical home for the new unit to developing the curriculum and hiring faculty. Previously, the certified orthopedic clinical specialist was an associate professor and chair of the Krannert School of Physical Therapy at the University of Indianapolis.

Innovative curriculum

WMU's Doctor of Physical Therapy, one of the nation's newest DPT program's, debuted in June just two months after earning candidate status for accreditation. It is an innovative 30-month curriculum built from the ground up to save students both time and money.

"Most DPT programs around the country take 3 to 3 1/2 years to complete. We condensed our program to 2 1/2 years by eliminating breaks, which many graduate students do not favor, and maximizing efficiencies," Fruth says. "I'm very, very conscious of student debt. A shorter program means there are fewer funds going out in tuition, fees and housing, and a faster route to begin loan repayment."

She adds that physical therapy doctoral students at WMU will graduate in December, whereas students at other Michigan schools offering the program graduate in spring. Consequently, they will enter the job market sooner than their peers and should find employment more quickly.

The program's philosophy also emphasizes introducing students to "real people with real physical challenges" as early and frequently as possible. Community members with any type of physical limitation or with chronic conditions such as stroke, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease are invited to join the program's Community Client Alliance. Alliance members come to physical therapy classrooms to help students learn about various conditions, diseases and injuries, and their contributions are invaluable.

"We took a hard look at what many long-standing programs have been doing just because that's the way things have always been done, and we took a few risks," Fruth says. "We looked at what efficiencies we could capture and what would make us most responsive to the changing times. We were intent on ensuring every component we included would contribute to our students' success, because that's the main goal."

Program nuts and bolts

WMU's Doctor of Physical Therapy is open to students who have earned a bachelor's degree and completed all prerequisite courses. While hundreds of students will apply to the program each year, only 30 are accepted. Those students will go on to complete 110 credit hours of WMU graduate coursework.

Hands-on experiences with a diverse population of patients start in year one of the curriculum, when students engage in some 30 faculty-supervised hours in a variety of clinical settings. They also participate in two full-time 10-week clinical rotations during their second year and a full-time 12-week clinical rotation their final year.

Classmembers watch as Jackson and two students ready a mock patient to be lifted.

Dr. Yvonne Jackson, right, demonstrates how to use a mechanical lift to transfer patients.

Physical therapy is based on the recently renovated second floor of the Ernest Wilbur Building. The building is located on WMU's East Campus, which is a hub for health and human services programs and facilities. The program also has a presence in the high-tech Health and Human Services Building, located only a few hundred feet from the Ernest Wilbur Building.

Faculty and staff are housed there, as is the soon-to-be completed physical therapy research laboratory. The research space is designed not only to serve DPT faculty and students, but also to facilitate multidisciplinary research collaborations with other WMU schools and departments, such as those with exercise science, physician assistant and many other health programs.

"The research lab's location is perfect for research participants with mobility problems who might have difficulty navigating the expanse of the Health and Human Services Building," Fruth notes. "The entrance is ideal in terms of drop-off, accessibility and privacy."

Positive job outlook

WMU has a long history of providing outstanding health and human services programs. In fact, U.S. News and World Report places the audiology, occupational therapy, rehabilitation counseling and speech-language pathology programs among the 50 best of their kind in the nation and the social work and physician assistant programs among the 100 best.

Fruth says physical therapy complements those highly rated existing programs, and regional employers as well as campus health and human services units are delighted WMU is offering a doctorate in the discipline.

A student practices strapping another student into a wheelchair.

In one of their first classes, students practice how to
assist wheelchair users.

"One of the most consistent messages I've heard from clinic owners, hospital administrators and rehabilitation administrators throughout Kalamazoo and southwest Michigan is that they have a hard time attracting qualified and eager PT job applicants to the area," Fruth says. "Once our first cohort graduates in 2021, we can help our clinical partners fill these positions with excellent clinicians who wish to stay in the area. That's one of the reasons why everyone is so excited for us to be here."

Forecasts indicate that the demand for physical therapists will continue to grow. For instance, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that employment for these professionals would grow 28% between 2016 and 2026, a much faster increase than was predicted for all occupations. The bureau estimated that the demand will come largely from treating aging baby boomers and people with mobility issues stemming from chronic conditions, such as diabetes and obesity.

Aside from those broad emerging trends in health care, Fruth says physical therapists have long possessed the training to serve the needs of a wide variety of clinical populations.

They include people injured in military service, accidents, work or sports; those recovering from heart attacks, strokes or cancer; and children needing care for congenital disorders. In recent years, many physical therapists have also successfully branched into emerging specialty areas, such as pelvic health, concussion, wounds and burns, and persons seeking care in emergency departments.

Fruth says the theme evident through each of those clinical practice patterns is the training of physical therapists to help individuals increase their capacity and confidence to move more effectively, thus improving their quality of life.

For more information about the Doctor of Physical Therapy, visit the physical therapy department website. Learn more about physical therapy careers by visiting the American Physical Therapy Association website.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.