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Whitworth University’s first doctoral programs in physical therapy, occupational therapy to launch this fall

Whitworth University is set to launch its new physical therapy and occupational therapy programs this fall.  (Courtesy of Whitworth University)
Whitworth University is set to launch its new physical therapy and occupational therapy programs this fall. (Courtesy of Whitworth University)

Starting this fall, Whitworth University will offer doctoral programs for the first time in the university’s 132-year history.

The university officially announced the three-year physical therapy and occupational doctoral programs Monday that, along with the university’s athletic training master’s program, will be taught out of Whitworth’s new science building.

The 38,000-square-foot Dana & David Dornsife Health Sciences Building, which broke ground in summer 2020, will have a motion analysis research lab, exercise physiology labs, anatomy labs, simulation labs and an interprofessional practice clinic. The building is scheduled to open this fall alongside the new doctoral programs.

“These programs are transformative for the university, and they are no less significant for the region,” Whitworth University President Scott McQuilkin said in a statement. “Whitworth-trained therapists, equipped by a superb faculty, in a state-of-the-art facility, and with the hallmarks of a mind-and-heart education, will serve their patients and communities with expertise and personal care.”

Health sciences professor Mike Ediger, who has overseen the launch of the two programs, said the additions were more than a decade in the making.

Moving into graduate programs was always part of the plan when Ediger helped create the university’s health sciences department in 2008, especially after health sciences grew into one of Whitworth’s largest departments in terms of students and faculty by around 2015, he said.

Ediger said department leaders in 2016 started evaluating possible program additions, focusing on the graduate side as a “next step” alongside the department’s decision to change the athletic training program from a bachelor’s to a master’s degree program.

“The students wanted it,” he said.

“As our undergraduate students grew and we were sending them all over the country to graduate programs,” Ediger said, “they said, ‘We love this. We just wish we could stay in region.’ There aren’t enough seats for these programs in the Pacific Northwest.”

Ediger said the department has already hired 20 new faculty as the program gets ready for launch in fall semester.

“Whitworth is such a unique environment with the mind-and-heart education, the integration of faith and learning,” said Jonathan Hook, Whitworth’s director of clinical education. “It just creates what we believe is such an ideal environment to create health care providers that are holistic in their approach to patient care and are looking to address the needs of society.”

In addition to individualized program content, Hook said faculty will work to integrate a “professional formation” class, a series with physical therapy, occupational therapy and athletic training designed to teach them how to work collaboratively.

“That’s still unique in that I feel there’s quite a few programs across the country in that programs are kind of siloed and there’s not a lot of interprofessional classwork,” he said. “We’re really excited about that with just how we designed the building so that could happen.”

Ediger said the job market for physical and occupational therapists also contributed to the department’s thought process.

Citing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the university said employment of physical therapists is projected to grow 21% over the next decade, faster than the average for other occupations nationwide. Employment of occupational therapists is projected to grow 16% over that same span, according to Whitworth.

Ediger said he formally presented a physical therapy program proposal in 2017. He said the department then spent a year evaluating what else Whitworth could excel at, particularly looking at offerings at other area universities.

The health sciences department ultimately settled on physical and occupational therapy programs. Ediger said in speaking with Eastern Washington and Washington State universities, he found potential opportunities to partner particularly with EWU’s physical therapy program. EWU also has an occupational therapy master’s degree program.

With clinical placements a key part of the program curriculum, Ediger also said he spoke with area clinicians to see if they could help support the program additions. The university received more than 100 letters of intent from clinical partners willing to take Whitworth students on during their time in the programs, he said.

Hook said he does not anticipate COVID-19 concerns to have much of an effect on clinical experiences for students.

“This truly was a faculty, student and community-driven initiative,” Ediger said. “Whitworth has been all in on this since that 2017 process.”

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