A School of Health Professions alumnus is changing the face of health care in a country halfway around the world

December 10, 2013

By Greg Peters

Muhammed Al-Jarrah, Ph.D.

A University of Kansas Medical Center alumnus is changing the face of a health care in a country halfway around the world. Muhammed Al-Jarrah, Ph.D., PT, is leading Fatima College of Health Sciences' effort to establish the principles of physical therapy education and clinical practice in the emirate of Abu Dhabi — the largest of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Al-Jarrah earned his master of science in clinical physical therapy/orthopedic therapy from the School of Health Professions in 2004 and his doctorate in physical therapy and rehabilitation science/neurorehabilitation in 2006 before returning to teach at Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST) in his home country.

"We were thrilled because he was our first student from Jordan," said Lisa Stehno-Bittel, chair of the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science. "He is intelligent and hardworking, and everyone loved to be around him because of his wonderful personality."

Physical therapy in the United Arab Emirates

Al-Jarrah is currently taking time away from his duties at JUST to help Fatima College build its physical therapy program in twin buildings on campuses in the cities of Abu Dhabi and Al-Ain. Fatima College was established in 2006 as an all-women's nursing school and is the only school of health sciences in Abu Dhabi — an emirate whose 2 million residents make it the most populous of the seven UAE.

An affiliate of Monash University in Australia, Fatima College has created programs in pharmacy, physiotherapy and medical imaging in addition to its nursing curriculum, with paramedic training planned for next year. As the head of the physiotherapy department, Al-Jarrah splits time between the campuses in cities that are roughly 80 miles apart. He spends three days a week on the Abu Dhabi campus and the other two in Al-Ain. 

"My role here is to establish physiotherapy education and the clinical practice of physical therapy as a career all over Abu Dhabi," says Al-Jarrah, whose physical therapy program is the first in the city and the area. "I joined Fatima College to lead this program, now I'm trying to put the American (Kansas) stamp of teaching on this program. We have started to bring in faculty from the United States to enrich the program."

In the last year, Al-Jarrah has been busy working out the details of accreditation, curriculum, guidelines, licensing, plus communicating with the ministries of health and education and other government agencies. He also spent time filling the teaching labs with equipment on both campuses and presenting physical therapy seminars in Abu Dhabi emirate.

"For now, we are working with different agencies that govern the physical therapy career policies in the country to put together the guidelines of the career, like what the physiotherapists should do, their authority, legal aspects, training and education," he says.

Although Jordan and the UAE are Islamic countries where tradition often calls for a separation of genders for certain activities, Al-Jarrah says he has not seen a lot of differences in the physical therapy education process in the Middle East compared to what he experienced in the United States.

"There are not too many differences, except the idea that in physical therapy women are still treating only female patients," he says, "We don't have separate classrooms during teaching. We might have separate labs for the girls, depending on the lab."

JUST rewards

Al-Jarrah was born in 1968 in Irbid, Jordan, a major ground transportation hub connecting Amman with Syria to the north and Mafraq to the east. Jordan's second-largest city after Amman, Irbid is known for its colleges and universities — the two most prominent being Jordan University of Science and Technology and Yarmouk University.

JUST was founded in 1986 when the faculties from five schools left Yarmouk University. Since starting with a few thousand students, JUST has grown to include more than 24,000 students.

Al-Jarrah received a Bachelor of Science degree in medical technology in 1991 from JUST and later became a research and teaching assistant there. He says many of the hospitals and therapy centers in Jordan needed physical therapists, and this demand piqued his interest.

Coming to America

So how does someone from Jordan wind up 7,000 miles away at the University of Kansas Medical Center?

"JUST started this bachelor's degree program in physical therapy in 1999, so they were in need of scholars to go to the United States for higher degrees in physical therapy and to come back to JUST and lead teaching, research and clinical applications of PT," he says.

Al-Jarrah had spent seven years as a teaching assistant in the anatomy department at JUST, so he was excited when he learned about the opportunity to come to the United States to continue his education. About the time JUST was pushing to upgrade its PT program, a delegation from KU Medical Center, which included John Ferraro, chairman and professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech, and Lou Loescher-Junge, associate dean of the School of Health Professions, was visiting Jordan in 2000 to encourage cooperation with KU.

"The KU physical therapy department was known as one of the most recognized physical therapy departments in the United States," Al-Jarrah says, "so it would be a great honor to join such a school."

Al-Jarrah became a research assistant in the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science at KU from 2001 to 2003 before working as a teaching assistant from 2003 to 2006. During this time, Al-Jarrah's sense of humor helped to endear him to the physical therapy faculty and his fellow students.

"Muhammed is one of the funniest people we know," Stehno-Bittel says. "Every day he came to the lab with a story that would have us crying we laughed so hard."

Al-Jarrah and his wife have four children, two of whom were born during their time in Kansas. "Half of my family are Jordanians and half are Americans," he says.

Back to Jordan

Al-Jarrah returned to JUST after graduating from KU in 2006 and joined the school's faculty as an assistant professor and chairman of the clinical physical therapy division. He has since served as assistant dean and vice dean for the faculty of applied medical sciences and in 2010 became the chairman of the Department of Allied Medical Sciences.

"I have known Muhammed Al-Jarrah very well as a friend, neighbor and faculty member at our university," says Ahmed Elbetieha, vice president and professor of developmental, cellular and molecular biology at JUST. "Since Muhammed joined the university as a faculty member in the department of physical therapy, his performance has been outstanding at all levels, including teaching, research and administration. He has made substantial and thoughtful contributions during his service."

Since returning to JUST, Al-Jarrah has won three major grants from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as principle investigator from Jordan, with the total award amount exceeding $500,000 — which he says is double his school's annual budget. He is also an accomplished writer with 25 published works since graduating from KU.

The research projects are in collaboration with researchers in Spain, Italy, Palestine, Israel and Morocco. The first project involves the rehabilitation of adults with cerebral palsy, and the second works with the rehabilitation of stroke survivors.

Surrounded by Jayhawks

Although Al-Jarrah has moved back to his home in Jordan, he has is still surrounded by the familiar faces of fellow Jayhawks. There are five University of Kansas Medical Center graduates in the School of Applied Medical Sciences at JUST, whose specialties include occupational therapy, physical therapy, audiology and speech. Plans are in the works for four more KU grads to join the group soon. There is also a KU Medical Center alumnus working in the School of Nursing.

"When he went back to Jordan, he got one of the largest multi-national grants ever given in the Middle East," Stehno-Bittel says. "He built the physical therapy education program at JUST, serving as the chair. Then he moved to Abu Dhabi and is starting the PT profession for that country."

Al-Jarrah plans to return to his work at JUST full-time in two years, but until then he will continue splitting his days between Fatima College's two campuses as well as periodically returning to Jordan where he maintains two grant projects funded by USAID.

"We expected him to go back to JUST and efficiently run a wonderful PT education program," Stehno-Bittel says. "We didn't really know he liked research that much when he was here. Going after these large grants and running multi-site studies is quite a remarkable accomplishment. We are proud and happy for him."

Last modified: Dec 11, 2013