Kathleen Fogarty sees the human body as a textbook.
Muscles, nerves and bones are chapters in her career.
Fogarty is one of 30 students enrolled in a new physical therapy assistant program at Spokane Falls Community College.
When she graduates next year, the 24-year-old Fogarty can expect any number of job offers because Spokane has a shortage of qualified physical therapy assistants. Until now, there hasn’t been a training program in the region.
Fogarty said she’s excited about the prospect of helping people overcome their injuries or disabilities. “I like the teaching aspect,” she said.
The program comes at a time when budget cuts forced SFCC to eliminate other programs, including the radio broadcasting degree.
But college officials said physical therapy assistants have a better chance of establishing good-paying careers. Starting pay is about $12 an hour plus benefits, or two-thirds the salary of a licensed physical therapist.
Physical therapy assistants work under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist. They are qualified to perform many of the treatments recommended by the diagnosing therapist.
Hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and schools are hiring assistants to work as part of their care teams.
Liz Gilbert, director of the outpatient physical therapy program at Deaconess Medical Center, said it makes sense for larger employers to use the assistants.
“It’s a way to stretch health care dollars,” she said.
Professionals in the field said physical therapy is playing an increasing role in the spectrum of medical care. Therapists and their assistants get injured workers back on the job faster and disabled patients out of the hospital sooner, and that saves money, they said.
This comes at a time when the the population is getting older and more people are seeking treatment from the wear and tear.
“The whole scope of the field is continuing to grow,” said Kathy Moraveck, a physical therapist in Spokane who served on a SFCC advisory committee. “The students coming out of there are going to have a lot of offers.”
SFCC is the third community college in Washington, and the only one in Eastern Washington, to offer the program.
It’s not known how many jobs would be available, but Gilbert and others said the health-care sector could easily absorb the 30 graduates who will be coming out of SFCC every two years.
To become a fully licensed physical therapist generally requires a master’s degree, said Deborah Sheehan, the program’s instructor.
SFCC student Fogarty said she wants to help people cope with injuries, especially athletic injuries.
She is an athlete herself, a former women’s crew member at GU and now coach of the women’s crew team.
There is no shortage of students trying to get into the program. The college admitted 32 students last fall from a field of 75 applicants. New applications won’t be processed until the spring and summer of 1997 for classes starting the following fall.
Tom Hopkins, dean of vocational and technical programs at SFCC, said Spokane currently has only a few physical therapy assistants with degrees because there hasn’t been a college program in the region until now.
He said North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene is considering a physical therapy assistant program.
During a survey of the profession several years ago, Hopkins said he found many health-care providers were employing aids without technical training.
SFCC could have started the program several years ago, he said, but budget cuts from the Legislature slowed the start up.
In 1994, the state provided $70,000 in seed money to get the physical therapy assistant program going, he said.
Some students in the program are returning to college for new careers.
Mary Jo Hemmerling, 35, was an assistant manager at a pizza parlor for 16 years when she decided she needed a challenge. “It was time for me to move on and make some more money,” she said.
Rod Bacon, 27, of Kennewick, said he was working as an untrained assistant for a clinic in the Tri-Cities which treats a lot of athletes. His boss, a licensed therapist, offered to send him to SFCC. Bacon said he couldn’t refuse because his boss is paying for his tuition and books.
Physical therapist Moraveck said, “The way health care is changing, the physical therapy assistant is becoming as important as the therapist.”
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