First Doctoral Program Underway

October 20, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Forty health students have enrolled in Grand Valley State University's first doctoral degree program that is to graduate its first class in 2007.

The program — a clinical doctorate, not a doctor of philosophy — is in physical therapy. Over the next three years it will replace GVSU's 12-year-old master of science program in the same discipline.

But Jane Toot, dean of GVSU's College Health Professions, and John Peck, the chairman of the college's physicial therapy department, stress that the new clinical doctorate is not merely a change in initials that a practitioner places after his or her name.

For one thing, the program has summer as well as spring and autumn sessions, so it works out to be the equivalent of four full academic years.

The dean told the Business Journal that the creation of the doctorate program is something that is happening nationwide because the increasing complexity of health care increases the complexity of physical therapy itself.

She said the profession has a goal for all new physical therapy practitioners to have clinical doctorates by 2020.

"The curricula for the doctorate is much more intense and more far-reaching," she said.

"The master's program already is very, very rigorous," she said. "And the new program has more pharmacology and more radiology and also includes a lot more clinical time."

She and Peck explained that the new degree is based on a complete restructuring of the university's physical therapy courses. "It took the entire faculty about two years to do that," she said.

As the program's 11 professors rebuilt the curriculum, they also continued teaching the old curriculum — and still are teaching it — to students in the master's program.

Peck — who said wryly that he and his faculty are running short on sleep — explained that students who graduate in 2007 will have more sophisticated training than the current master's program offers.

He said the new people who graduate with a DPT (doctorate in physical therapy) will be able to examine patients' problems from skeletal perspectives, muscular perspectives and neurological perspectives, including whether the neural difficulties are peripheral or central.

They will have better knowledge, and they'll be able to help the patient get better faster. And they will be able to work with the patients in a number of settings."

Toot herself stressed the substantial contrast between the practice of physical therapy today and in the '60s when she — with a brand-new bachelor's in physical therapy — began her first job at Mary Free Bed Hospital working with polio patients. She said modern demands on physical therapists' knowledge are much more complicated.

Peck said restructuring all the courses was a heavy work load. "We didn't carry anything [old courses] forward," he said, "although all the content in the master's program still has a home some place in the new DPT curriculum.

He said central nervous system diagnosis is one of the new parts of the curriculum, as is learning how to work with X-ray and other types of imaging.

"We also put all of our examination skills to the front," he added. "And then after we've taught how to examine a patient, then we move into intervention and treatment.

"It's just a more logical sequence," Peck explained.

"In the past, we kind of mixed it up — we had some examination and some intervention at the front. Then next semester we'd have some more examination and some more intervention.

"But we've been successful in integrating a more comprehensive and logical sequence into the DPT curriculum."

Except for the first semester in the curriculum, which requires students to work in the regional anatomy lab at GVSU's Allendale campus, the program is offered in the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences on Michigan Street near Spectrum Health.

"It's the best facility in the United States," Peck said. "It's state of the art."

Peck has chaired the department since joining GVSU eight years ago.

He said the department was somewhat surprised to have a full enrollment of 40 students in this first year. He told the Business Journal that physical space is available for as many as 60 students, but the department doesn't have enough faculty.

Toot explained that getting into the program is fairly difficult.

One must be completing a bachelor's degree in science with a 3.0 overall average as well as at least a 3.0 average in courses in organic and biochemistry, anatomy and physiology and physics.

One almost must have 50 hours of volunteer time, recommendations and successfully complete an interview with a faculty member and a clinician.

"As part of the interview," the dean added, "an applicant has to do an on-site writing sample. First, we want to look at their writing skills and, number two, we want to look at their critical thinking skills."

She said the writing assignment is to do an abstract of a current article — say the Newsweek focus on the Mind-Body Connection — and to answer two questions in essay format.

The interview, which also ascertains the candidate's views on diversity in health care, weighs equally with the student's grades. "And the top 40 scores gain admission."

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