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Arnold School of Public Health

Doctor of Physical Therapy program increases class size while maintaining ‘boutique’ approach to physical therapy education

May 1, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, 

For Cory Stuart, choosing UofSC’s Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program was initially based on statistics and data. He was looking for a program with excellent records in board exam passage and job placement rates. Stuart also liked the small class size and the combination of clinical knowledge and practice exposure.

“I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to get to know my classmates very well and be interactive with my professors,” says Stuart, a first-year student in the 3 1/3 year program. “I think that we have a really special opportunity to work hard in a very intimate classroom atmosphere while also being part of a huge university with so much to offer outside of the day-to-day schoolwork.” 

“From day one, the faculty, who are truly excellent at what they do and very well-known and respected in the therapy world, are closely working with you and are personally invested in your success here,” adds John McCann, a third-year student. “You develop strong relationships with them and your classmates as a result of the smaller class size, and getting help from them is easy if you ever find yourself needing it.”

The DPT program is in the midst of increasing its class size to allow additional highly qualified students like Stuart and McCann to join the program. While the program has maintained a very small class size of just 18 students in each of its three cohorts over its 15+ years, the class size went up to 22 in the fall of 2016. It will increase to 26 in 2017 and finally 30 in 2018. But the program has every intention of maintaining their small class size approach to teaching the profession of physical therapy.

A growing profession

From the day the first class matriculated in 2001, the Arnold School of Public Health’s DPT program already had an edge over similar programs. Existing physical therapy programs were following a nationwide movement to transition their mostly bachelor's- and master’s-level programs to a clinical doctorate format. When the Department of Exercise Science decided to establish a physical therapy program, they had the opportunity to design and develop a clinical doctorate program from scratch rather than working to adapt an existing program.  

The doctoral degree requirement for physical therapists is a reflection of their growing importance in the healthcare field. “PTs have become who people go to when they have a movement problem,” explains DPT Director Stacy Fritz.

Today, there are more than 230 physical therapy programs accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) at institutions across the United States. Based on rankings from U.S. News and World Report, the UofSC DPT program is in the top 16 percent of these schools and ranked No. 25 among public institutions. They received over 700 applications for the 2016-2017 academic year for just 22 spots.

The high demand for physical therapists and the tremendous interest in the profession by prospective students are the primary drivers for the growth of the UofSC program. However, the advantages of a small class size led program and school leadership to strategically limit this growth. 

Preparing for clinical practice

The Arnold School’s DPT program was designed to maintain small class sizes that allow close interactions between students and faculty. It’s a hands-on approach for what is quite literally a hands-on profession.

“We, as faculty, made a conscious decision to keep our class sizes smaller so that we can instruct on a higher level,” says Fritz. “And it’s not just in the classroom. We get to know the students as individuals and our schedules allow more time for meeting with students one-on-one.”

Although they are nearly doubling their class size, the DPT program continues to prioritize the benefits of the small class atmosphere by staying 12 below the national average class size of 42 students per cohort. In addition to helping meet the growing demand for physical therapists, this strategic growth also allows the DPT program to increase faculty expertise.

In parallel with the gradual growth in class size, the program welcomed Clinical Associate Professor Shana Harrington in January. Alicia Flach will join the Arnold School in July of this year, and one more DPT faculty member will be hired during the third and final year of the transition period.

“One of the benefits of growing our class sizes is that we are able to bring in more faculty with different areas of expertise,” explains Fritz. “Through careful decision making, we’ve been able to have the best of both worlds—expanding our faculty and admitting additional qualified students while also maintaining our ability to provide what we’ve come to think of as a ‘boutique’ delivery of physical therapy education through what is still a small class size.”

The gradual growth also allows time for Clinical Associate Professor Harvey Mathews, who has been with the DPT program since it began, to add placement opportunities to his carefully cultivated network of partners who provide exceptional clinical experiences to students. That is another point of distinction for the UofSC DPT program. While many programs save their clinical rotations for the final year of their programs (after two years of classroom study), the Arnold School DPT program incorporates clinical practice throughout.          

“Our philosophy is that students don’t learn everything they need to know and then apply it—applying it is part of the learning process, so we have designed our curriculum to build on itself,” Fritz says. “After their very first rotations, they are asking more advanced questions and have a very different mindset. We can see them transition from students to practitioners, and we know that the early rotations not only prepare them for future rotations and courses, they also grow the expectations and standards for what they are capable of learning and doing. Of course, we couldn’t accomplish this without the outstanding clinical instructors we work with who teach the students at their facilities.”

Advancing the science of physical therapy

DPT is a clinical degree program. They are preparing students to become expert clinicians, and the program works. They have 100 percent rates in graduation, ultimate licensure pass rates, and employment in clinical positions. However, they also teach students about research methodologies and provide them with opportunities to help conduct scientific studies.

“Learning about the process of medical research—and conducting my own as part of the program requirements—is really an eye-opening experience, and I think is a mark of real distinction,” says McCann. “Every student here is made a better clinician and practitioner of evidence-based practice by conducting research with the goal of contributing to the body of knowledge that all therapists can draw from in order to better treat their patients.”

Each student conducts a major research project, guided by DPT faculty members and/or other exercise science faculty members. The exercise science department’s Rehabilitation Sciences division is closely tied to the DPT program with significant overlaps occurring in both research and mentorship. The department also encourages students to consider enrolling in an accelerated Ph.D. in Exercise Science (No. 1 in the U.S.). CAPTE requires that at least 50 percent of DPT faculty have terminal degrees, so this program helps meet that need while preparing students for careers as educators and researchers.   

“One of our missions is to grow the number of graduates who have both a DPT and a Ph.D.,” says Fritz. “This will help improve the research and scientific base of our profession.”

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