Physical therapy program obtains accreditation, set to graduate first cohort

Contact: Joel Krauss
A Doctor of Physical Therapy student completes hands-on learning with a classmate acting as a patient.

Dr. Stacie Fruth guides DPT students in class.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University's Doctor of Physical Therapy program has been granted initial accreditation by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. This notification, which was received Dec. 2, comes four-and-a-half years after the program was initiated at Western and just three weeks before the first cohort of Doctor of Physical Therapy students will graduate.

"Accreditation is a long and arduous process," says Dr. Stacie Fruth, founding chair of Western's Department of Physical Therapy. "For us, it started nearly five years ago and we are absolutely thrilled to reach this important milestone."

With the first cohort of students just about to graduate, obtaining accreditation status is exceedingly important. Graduating from an accredited program is necessary for individuals to obtain a license to practice as a physical therapist.

"These students came here with the understanding and the belief that we would be accredited by the time they graduated," says Fruth. "We were sure of the timeline all along, and we were confident that we would get here, but there's still a sense of relief that we were able to deliver on our promise."

Many of the students who will graduate in December already have jobs lined up and nearly a third of them have already passed their national licensing exam, which is required to practice.

Stacie Fruth holds a piece of physical therapy equipment.

Dr. Stacie Fruth, founding chair of the WMU Department of Physical Therapy

Fruth came to Western in 2017 to start working on program development. Since then, the department has grown with the hiring of eight full-time faculty and several staff members as well as the opening of updated space at the Ernest Wilbur Building, right next door to the College of Health and Human Services building on WMU's East Campus. In 2020, the college also renovated space inside the CHHS building to create two new research areas for the PT department and other college units.

"Dr. Fruth has guided this department and program through an incredible amount of organizational work and transformation," says Dr. Ron Cisler, dean of the College of Health and Human Services. "On-site and virtual visits as well as incredible organizational development and reporting on specific programmatic details are required to achieve accreditation. Stacie and her tremendous team of faculty and staff have worked incredibly hard to meet deadlines and get their program through the process. Having a fully-accredited PT program is a great accomplishment for this college and for the University and has a tremendous impact for our students."

COVID-19 challenges

Starting a new doctoral program and seeking accreditation require a great deal of time and effort. Meticulous planning and tireless management is required under the best of circumstances. But when a global pandemic arrives just after plans are put in place, student success and program accreditation become questions of flexibility, will and endurance.

“Just about every aspect of the program was impacted by the pandemic,” says Fruth. “Classroom instruction, clinical learning, student research—they were all upended because of COVID-19.”

Like all areas of the University, physical therapy faculty moved all instruction to online modalities in early 2020, then modified courses to allow hands-on, skill-based learning to resume as quickly as possible. The program is indebted to its clinical partners for making accommodations to allow students to proceed with full-time clinical rotations when many other programs across the state were faced with clinical cancellations that often delayed students’ graduation.

“Our first cohorts had to face these challenges in addition to the rigorous work already built into our curriculum,” says Fruth. “Their resilience and hard work, as well as the support and commitment of our staff, faculty and clinical partners were ultimately responsible for their success.”

Moving ahead

Daryl Lawson talks with a student acting as a patient in a chair.

Associate professor Dr. Daryl Lawson and students are working to reduce amputations due to diabetes.

While the first cohort is preparing to graduate, there are two other cohorts working their way through the program, and Fruth and her team are in the middle of admitting students for the fourth cohort who will begin in summer 2022.

"For the first cohort, we had 111 applications," says Sarah Anderson, manager of recruitment and outreach for the department. "For the 2022 cycle, we had upwards of 250 applications to go through. It's amazing growth in a short amount of time, and it's incredibly rewarding when you look at all the work that's been put in to make the program go."

In addition to classroom instruction for three cohorts, faculty and students alike are conducting research studies. Concussions, stroke recovery, balance issues, emergency department practice and complications related to diabetes are just a few of the many areas being studied by PT faculty.

A pinning ceremony and reception is scheduled for Friday, Dec. 17 at 3 p.m. to celebrate the 2021 graduates of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program.

“Pinning ceremonies are a tradition for PTs,” says Fruth. “It’s meaningful for graduates, knowing they’re fully prepared to transition from student to practicing clinician. And after all the effort we put in to get here and all the challenges we faced in the last two years, I know this first pinning ceremony at WMU will be extra meaningful for me and for our whole team.”

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