Healthy Choices

Sacramento State to send first class of doctoral physical therapy students into booming job field

Katie Winchell, and other doctoral candidates in physical therapy at Sacramento State watch a video of their “hooding” ceremony Saturday. In August, after completing clinical rotations, the students will receive their degrees.
Katie Winchell, and other doctoral candidates in physical therapy at Sacramento State watch a video of their “hooding” ceremony Saturday. In August, after completing clinical rotations, the students will receive their degrees. scaiola@sacbee.com

Donovan Curtis, a member of the first graduating class in a newly developed doctoral physical therapy program at California State University, Sacramento, smiled big Saturday morning as a ceremonial blue and gold hood was draped over his shoulders.

In August, after completing clinical rotations, Curtis and 29 other students will receive their degrees and move into a range of fields, including orthopedics and neurological rehabilitation. Since 2012, they have been readying themselves for the growing job field, while also serving as guinea pigs for the new doctoral curriculum. Their “hooding,” which kicked off the College of Health and Human Services ceremony Saturday, symbolized the fruits of a decadelong approval process for the university.

“It feels great. Unreal,” Curtis said. “It was challenging, at times. Academically, lifewise ... I wanted to do it because I wanted to have an effect on people’s lives.”

The soon-to-be grads have ample job opportunities ahead of them, said Ed Barakatt, director of the department of physical therapy at Sacramento State. Physical therapy is among the nation’s fastest growing fields, with a projected employment increase of 36 percent between 2012 and 2022, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. This is due in part to the aging of the U.S. population, as well as the rising prevalence of chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity.

The rising need for physical therapists with doctoral degrees became more pertinent when California, in 2013, began allowing patients to consult a physical therapist without a referral from a physician. The current industry requires a higher degree of competence, professor Michael McKeough said, and Sacramento State now has the capacity to provide it. The school is one of 14 in the state accredited by the Physical Therapy Board of California, along with four other CSU schools that now offer the doctorate in physical therapy.

Sacramento State has offered a master’s program in physical therapy since 2001, and offered a bachelor’s degree program before that. But when the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education announced that, starting in January, it would only accredit programs offering doctorates, physical therapy programs across the CSU systems sought to enhance their curriculum to the doctoral level.

The first step was passing legislation to allow for another doctoral program in addition to the existing one in the department of education. It took a few tries, but the change will ultimately benefit both the students and the health care industry, said McKeough.

“It’s been a long road, but it’s very fulfilling for everybody involved, he said. “These students are going to be able to go out and make a difference in the lives of many, many, many California citizens.”

The new physical therapy doctoral curriculum, conceived with the help of the other CSU schools offering the degree, was designed to respond to the need for providers, demanding more rigorous coursework and additional time spent with patients in clinical settings.

The three-year doctoral program replaces the previous 21/2-year master’s program, which graduated its last class in 2013. Because the doctoral program, which accepts 32 students per year, is longer, there are sometimes up to 96 students in the program, as opposed to 64. The swell in pupils, in addition to advances in the curriculum, spurred the college of health and human services to move the program to a new campus building, where it would have more space and newer training equipment to further promote the university’s hands-on approach.

There, doctoral candidates train for a wide range of career paths, from pediatric orthopedics to injury rehabilitation. They spend a total of 36 weeks working with patients in three clinical internships, and based on that experience prepare a comprehensive case analysis for their capstone project. The hope is that students will take those skills into the community – particularly students who come from or want to practice in rural areas.

“A lot of times, those rural areas have a hard time finding health care practitioners to come back and serve the needs of the community,” Barakatt said. “We get a lot of students from that area, and lot of them go back and serve the needs of that area, which is a big benefit.”

Curtis said the patient interaction component and the move to the new facility were part of what drew him to Sacramento State. After completing his undergraduate degree in kinesiology, the 25-year-old moved on to physical therapy with a focus on neurological rehabilitation.

Like his classmates, Curtis still has two 12-week clinical rotations to complete before officially graduating. Once he does, he plans to work with patients who suffer from strokes, spinal cord injuries, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological conditions that affect movement.

“I wanted to do it because I wanted to have an effect on people’s lives, and be able to make relationships with patients in a professional manner that makes them healthier, makes them happier, makes them more comfortable,” he said.

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.

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