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ETSU Physical Therapy partners with VA, private practice to create residency, fellowship opportunities

Contributed • Feb 14, 2020 at 5:20 PM

East Tennessee State University’s Department of Physical Therapy has expanded its educational and clinical reach in the region through the growth of residency and fellowship programs that offer advanced, specialized training for physical therapists who are interested in orthopedics.

“Physical therapy education has evolved over the years,” said Dr. Michael Bourassa, assistant professor and residency and fellowship program director.

“It started as a certificate program, then became a bachelor’s program, then a master’s and is now a doctorate. With that push, the next step was post-professional training, including residencies and fellowships.”

Residency program

When physical therapists complete their Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, they can pursue board certification in one of nine clinical specialties, which include pediatrics; sports; women’s health; geriatrics; clinical electrophysiology; cardiovascular and pulmonary; neurology; orthopedics and oncology; and wound care.

“Physical therapists who want to become board certified submit evidence of advanced clinical practice experience in the specialty area and must pass an exam,” Bourassa said.

“Residencies help prepare for board certification in a clinical specialty. According to 2019 data, there is an 87% pass rate for PTs who are residency-trained compared to a 79% pass rate for those who did not complete a residency.”

To help prepare physical therapists who want to specialize in orthopedics, or the focus on injuries or diseases of the musculoskeletal system, ETSU established its Orthopaedic Physical Therapy Residency program in partnership with the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center.

Through this year-long residency program, the ETSU-Quillen VA residents get mentorship and clinical experience at the VA along with classroom and lab instruction with ETSU faculty. Since it was established in 2017, four residents have completed the program.

Dr. Beau Whitt, an ETSU DPT alumnus, works at the VA and is the co-coordinator for the orthopaedics residency program.

“The thing that really sets us apart is our strong mentorship that is involved with this program,” Whitt said. “Another huge benefit of the VA is that we practice in every setting, so we are almost closer to the medical model. We have the inpatient setting, with patients fresh out of surgery, and we do outpatient care, as well.”

In addition to the vast amount of experience it provides for the residents, the patients also benefit from teamwork among the clinicians, Whitt added.

“My favorite part of the program is that it fosters a team approach,” Whitt said. “There is a high level of care going back and forth between the clinicians. Our residents are continually bringing things to the program, and we keep each other sharp as we provide the best possible care for our veterans.”

Dr. Whitney Ward, who earned her DPT from Western Carolina University, began her residency at ETSU in fall 2019.

“I love that this program was attached to the VA,” Ward said. “I wanted to have a quality mentorship experience and get to work with veterans, which I think is such a special population.”

Fellowship program

To elevate the training opportunities in orthopaedics, in 2019, ETSU added the Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapy Fellowship, in collaboration with two local private practices – Physical Therapy Services of Tennessee and Total Motion Physical Therapy.

Fellowships are designed for graduates of residency programs or board-certified therapists who want to continue to focus on a subspecialty. ETSU’s year-long fellowship pairs two fellows per year with mentors in private clinics, with the goal of increasing their expertise in orthopaedics.

“I chose to pursue this fellowship because I felt that I needed to update my clinical skills so that I was giving patients the highest quality care that I could,” said ETSU DPT alumnus Dr. Dustin Barrett, who completed the fellowship last fall and practices at Physical Therapy Services of Tennessee in Elizabethton.

“After being out of school for quite some time, I knew that there were ways I needed to improve, but I didn’t know exactly how to best go about this. The fellowship combined all the aspects I was looking for me to help me be the best clinician I could be for the benefit of my patients.”

Dr. Jennifer McGrath, a Quinnipiac University Physical Therapy alumna, completed both the residency and the fellowship in orthopedics at ETSU.

“One of the primary benefits for completing the fellowship was that it made me a more well-rounded clinician in the realm of clinical practice, education and research,” McGrath said.

“These programs also gave me the opportunity to build professional relationships that were sustained long after the program was over.”

ETSU’s residency and fellowship programs draw candidates from across the country, including from among ETSU physical therapy graduates. Both programs are accredited through the American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education and must meet certain requirements to maintain accreditation.

“I am grateful to our clinical partners for their willingness to collaborate with us to bring this advanced clinical training programs to our region,” said Dr. Patricia King, ETSU Physical Therapy department chairwoman.

“Without their dedication to excellence in physical therapy care and their willingness to make modifications to practice schedules and positions, none of these programs would have been possible for us to launch.”

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