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Physical Therapy Department Celebrates 20th Anniversary

Nicholas Verville, Melissa Wong, Heather Waters, Karen Yu, Philip Villa, Ling Yu Wen, Son Vu, Adelbert YuenOn November 6, the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program (DPT) at Samuel Merritt University (SMU) celebrated its 20th anniversary of their first entering class, the class of 1990.  The day-long event was held at the Health Education Center and featured a continuing education course, "A Systems Approach to Balance Evaluation and Treatment," presented by Fay Horak, PhD, PT, an internationally known clinician, educator and researcher.  The workshop emphasized the importance of evaluating the specific systems affected in each patient with a balance problem in order to develop effective physical therapy interventions.

A reception, hosted by the University's Office of Alumni Affairs, followed the workshop to honor all of the Department of Physical Therapy's alumni, current and former faculty and staff, students, clinical instructors, and friends. 

20 years of PT History; How DPT Started at SMU

The SMU Department of Physical Therapy (PT) was founded in 1990, under the leadership of Dr. Martha J. Jewell, professor emeritus.  The Department was the first health science discipline and first graduate program added to what was then a single-purpose College focused on nursing education.  The Department began with an entry-level master's degree in physical therapy. 

"When Dr. Jewell started the program, there were no doctoral physical therapy programs in the United States," said Terry Nordstrom, PT, EdD, and Chairperson of the DPT program.  "She came here with a vision that the doctoral degree was the optimal graduate degree in Physical Therapy."

First in Line:
The PT program was the first in the country to offer a long-term, paid culminating internship.  According to Dr. Nordstrom, one of the hallmarks of the MPT program was the orientation towards early, frequent and integrated clinical experiences. 

Nicole DeIanni, Kincade Dunbar, Daniele Gardner, Bronwyn Evans, Laura Temen"In order to prepare entry-level clinicians, the students needed that long term mentoring at the end of their academic program.  That was really unique and forward-thinking at the time," said Dr. Nordstrom. 

What made the program stand out from the others was that the department emphasized a systematic way of examining and treating patients who had orthopedic problems.  The students were also seeing patients in early clinical experience with physical conditions that matched those they were learning about in the classroom and labs.

Dr. Nordstrom says one of the strengths of the program is that it has always emphasized teaching students to think like physical therapists and cultivated their ability to creatively and effectively treat the person's problem.  He adds, "it is not 'cook-book' physical therapy."  Today, the DPT department continues to integrate clinical experiences in its curriculum and continues the culminating six-month experience.  With the explosion in the scientific evidence in physical therapy, there are new demands on students to learn how to best apply that evidence in the practice of physical therapy. 

"The student must learn to do that while treating the patient as a whole person," explains Dr. Nordstrom.  "We now use more standardized patients for assessment and run two clinics for people with neurologic problems.  These are two examples of ways in which we teach students the critically important clinical reasoning skills necessary to be an effective physical therapist.  The program provides students with the foundation to become expert physical therapists."

Leonard Campos, Wendy Cao, Diane Armstrong, Nelson CarranzaThere were over 300 graduates of the MPT program from 1991 to 2004.  In 2002, the Department admitted its first students to an entry-level Doctor of Physical Therapy program.  In 2003, Dr. Jewell was succeeded as Chair by Dr. Terry Nordstrom.  There have been 166 graduates of the program since the inaugural DPT class graduated in 2005.  Today, the Department has nine full-time faculty, all of whom are doctorally prepared, marking a major achievement in advancing teaching and scholarship in the Department and the University. 

"We are very fortunate because SMU has attracted and retained faculty members whose primary interest was teaching consistent with the University's mission," said Dr. Nordstrom.  "These excellent teachers also are advancing the research efforts of the Department and the University."

High Marks:
Members of the faculty are editors and authors of texts for clinical reasoning in physical therapy and for people with neuromuscular problems.  Dr. Widener, with some of her colleagues in the community, is the recent recipient of an NIH grant to support her research in the area of multiple sclerosis. 

The DPT department has a small research lab that has provided the opportunity for several faculty members to pursue their primary research agendas investigating movement and balance in people with a variety of disorders.  The University has invested resources to purchase sophisticated equipment for testing balance and movement.  The next step is to develop a significant motion analysis center.  The center would also benefit the California School of Podiatric Medicine and the Occupational Therapy Department.

"We're really proud of how far we have come in the last twenty years," said Dr. Nordstrom.  "The transformation and growth of our department is an amazing success story.  Our growth within a relatively short period can be attributed to the strengths of our current and former faculty, our ability to be innovative, and our commitment to continuously improve our program.  It's been an amazing twenty years and I look forward to many more years to come."


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