KU's physical therapy department is educating a record number of students

July 24, 2014

By Greg Peters

Second-year physical therapy student Scott Degan helps first-year student Rachel Stueve measure the range of motion in a fellow student’s knee

Students in T-shirts and shorts crowd into a warm classroom on the ground level of Sudler Hall on a bright July morning as assistant professor Stephen Jernigan begins teaching them the basics of how to measure the range of motion in joints.

The room, which in previous years was filled with about two-thirds the number of students, is alive with energy and anticipation as the physical therapists in training break into groups of twos and threes and take turns using goniometers to measure the motion in each other's hips and knees while Jernigan and six second-year student volunteers move about assisting the newbies.  

When this group of 58 new Doctor of Physical Therapy students stepped foot on campus for orientation on May 27, it marked the arrival of the largest incoming class in the history of the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science at the University of Kansas Medical Center. The expanded class size - up from 40 last year and 32 in 2012 - is in response to a growing need for more health care professionals in the state  and region, especially in underserved and rural areas.  

"I grew up in the small rural town of Hillsboro (Kan.) where I attended Tabor College," says physical therapy student student Nathan Vogel. "Growing up in such an underserved area, I spent a lot of time observing first-hand the need for more health professionals. As I start the program at KU, my plans don't necessarily involve living or working in Kansas, but I'm sure I will be somewhere in the Midwest in a similar underserved area."  

"Kansas and the surrounding states to our north and south have fewer physical therapy education programs than the East Coast or Southern states, which means that some rural areas are without physical therapists," says Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science department chair Lisa Stehno-Bittel. "At the same time, we were turning away excellent candidates who desperately wanted to be PT's. The larger class size allows us to meet the needs are rural areas and fulfill the dreams of more students."

KU Setting the Bar  

State standards in Kansas require every physical therapist to have graduated from an institution accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). And the trend nationally is toward DPT degrees in favor of master's programs. There are 224 accredited DPT programs in the United States, with 24 in development. KU and Wichita State University are the only accredited institutions in Kansas, and the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth is developing a program.  

Nearly 28 percent of all physical therapists working in Kansas and licensed by the Kansas Board of Healing Arts were trained at the University of Kansas -- the largest percentage of any Kansas school. With the expansion to a class of 60 DPT students at KU each year, it follows that the percentage should continue to grow.  

"I would like to see 50 percent of all practicing physical therapists working in Kansas trained at KU," says Stehno-Bittel.   Kansas Board of Healing Arts records show that KU alumni are employed in 55 of the state's 105 counties.  

"The KU PT program is one of the top programs in the nation," says Megan Rehm, who is from Bonner Springs and graduated from Fort Hays State. "I wanted to go to a school that would prepare me for a future as a PT, and I knew KU would deliver. I plan on staying in the Kansas City area. I love the community I grew up in and can't see living anywhere else. I grew up watching KU basketball, and I have always wanted to be a Jayhawk."  

Giving Back to Kansas  

The majority of this year's incoming DPT class graduated from Kansas (47) and Missouri (6) colleges, with many earning their undergraduates degrees at smaller institutions from throughout the region. Stehno-Bittel says the fact that many of the students in the class are from small colleges or rural areas is by design as KU strives to meet the need for more health care practitioners in underserved communities in Kansas and the region.  

Mitch Ackerman, a native of Spearville in Ford County, came to KU Medical Center after graduating from Fort Hays State University. Ackerman plans to use the physical therapy skills he learns at KU to work with joint or athletic rehabilitation.  

"If I do that, I will have to stay in a bigger city where there are more athletes and teams, but I also have the option of moving back to home and practicing there and farming on the side," he says. "Right now, I'm about 50-50 on which place to work. To practice in a rural area, I would have to be more of a general PT."  

Graduates of the physical therapy department are well represented throughout the state. Statistics compiled by the KU Alumni Association Office for graduates from 1970 to 2013 show that KU physical therapy alumni reside in 77 of the state's 105 counties, including some of the state's most sparsely populated rural counties such as Wallace, Lane, Ness, Cheyenne, Clark, Rawlins and Logan.  

DPT at KU  

The DPT degree is a three-year program designed to prepare a general physical therapist who is able to work in settings ranging from clinics and hospitals to assisted-living facilities and school districts. During their time at KU Medical Center, students learn in classrooms and clinics, research facilities and laboratories. KU's physical therapy program ranks consistently among the top 10 in U.S. News & World Report's best public graduate school programs.    

The Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science began phasing out its post-professional Doctor of Physical Therapy program last year due to decreased demand for the degree, while simultaneously making plans to expand the DPT class by 50 percent. In order to accommodate the larger class size, the physical therapy department has remodeled three classrooms and will be moving into renovated space in the Student Center by the fall semester.  

"New laboratory spaces have been gutted and remodeled to meet our needs," Stehno-Bittel says. "That includes new air-handling systems. The new 'mat' space consists of a large gym for mats and a gait-training area. The new plinth lab has expanded space, including a mock kitchen area for activities of daily living (ADL) training."  

An exit survey of 2014 DPT graduates shows that 72 percent of respondents accepted jobs in Kansas with 18 percent taking jobs in Missouri. The new PT graduates will be practicing in Logan, Pottawatomie, Riley, Saline, Shawnee, Douglas and Johnson Counties.  

New Beginnings  

Back in room G027 of Sudler, Jernigan gathers the DPT students around to listen one last time before dispersing them for the Fourth of July weekend. The room has cooled, but the students' quest for knowledge is still red hot. They've made it through the first month of classes and while learning new skills is challenging, they know this is just the first step on the grueling road to becoming licensed physical therapists.  

"It's definitely a challenge to work with equipment we've only had minimal exposure to before," says Rachel Stueve, who received her undergraduate from K-State and would like to one day practice in either her hometown of Topeka or Kansas City. "But it's exciting to be learning skills that we will use throughout the duration of our careers."    

PT By the Numbers:  (Kansas Board of Healing Arts 2014 data)

  • 3.457 active physical therapy licenses in Kansas          
  • 55 Kansas counties have KU alumni working as physical therapists         
  • 424 with Kansas PT licenses and indicate Kansas as their place of employment         
  • 28 percent of PT's with Kansas licenses working in the state were trained at KU         
  • 58 students in the 2017 Doctor of Physical Therapy degree class enrolled at KU
Last modified: Oct 20, 2016