U of M program enabling more diverse students to enter the physical therapy profession

Photo by Naassom Azevedo

As our society becomes increasingly diverse, it's important for the physical therapy profession to reflect those differences. A 2020 American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) demographics profile, however, showed that 84.3 percent of APTA member physical therapists reported as white. “In Minnesota, the physical therapist workforce report indicates that 95 percent identify as white,” said Assistant Professor Sara North, PT, DPT, MEd; Co-director, Center for Interprofessional Health.

To help increase the diversity of students in the U’s physical therapy program, North is co-leading an initiative known as the Human Movement Pipeline Program (HMPP) in partnership with Brandi Hoffman, MEd; Director of Undergraduate Studies at the School of Kinesiology; and Assistant Professor and DEI Coordinator and Strategist for the Division of Physical Therapy Briana Partee, PT, DPT. Partee will eventually take over as co-leader of the program with Hoffman, while North takes on more of an oversight role.

Identify, recruit, support
The program’s purpose is to identify, recruit, and support motivated undergraduate learners from diverse backgrounds interested in developing expertise in physical activity and human movement and pursuing a career in physical therapy.

Sara North, PT, DPT, MEd“We want to help move students from their undergraduate entry through to their graduate degree – with all the knowledge that is required for those steps,” said North (pictured here). Not everyone, especially students who come from more diverse backgrounds, have the same built-in knowledge as others, she noted. “For instance, if your father is a nurse or your mother a physician, you have access to shadowing opportunities that a student who has no such relationships has,” she said. “It becomes a barrier.”

Very real barriers
There are other barriers, including the application process itself, advanced standardized tests, and if they’re first-generation high school students, no built-in guidance for moving on to college and then to graduate school programs. There is also a cost barrier as they make their way through the various stages, such as for tuition, study prep, textbooks, and application fees. “These are just a few examples of why students from more diverse backgrounds may get lost along the way,” said North. “It’s not because they’re not bright enough or committed enough — it’s because there are very real barriers.”

The time is right for inviting diverse students into physical therapy programs and supporting them along the way. Part of it is the longstanding history of barriers, according to North. Plus, costs are rising, and the barriers are even higher. “As we become more aware of the lack of diversity in our profession and the research being published about how teams become more effective with increased diversity, we have to do something,” said North. “Part of the problem is that it takes a long time to get students through the program to become providers. Anyone entering the pipeline program now still has six years to go.”

Students identified as President’s Emerging Scholars and accepted to the U of M Health Professions Pathways Program (HPPP) are eligible to apply for the Human Movement Pipeline Program. Priority will be given to applicants identifying as a racial/ethnic minority to address critical shortages in the PT profession. After being accepted into HMPP, students will pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology followed by a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, both at the University of Minnesota. “We want these students to have the support they need to matriculate into our program,” said North.

Build a portfolio
Programs such as HMPP can help address some of the barriers, offering invaluable opportunities while in the undergraduate phase. Program participants have access to research lab opportunities and places to go for required observation hours. “Throughout the program, we’ll have students build an HMPP portfolio of reflective and required opportunities in a guided way so that by the time they officially submit their application, they’re ready to go,” said North. “We’re cultivating the ideal student by working with them to enable them to succeed.”

The program gives diverse students several advantages. In addition to an undergraduate academic advisor and the Health Professions Pathways Program advisor, students who come into HMPP have access to mentorship recommendations from the kinesiology program and the DPT program, North noted. “They have a team of contacts that can help answer questions and address needs the entire time they’re in the pipeline,” she said.

Financial support opportunities
In addition to mentoring, there may be some financial support associated with the program. “The Division of Physical Therapy and the University already offer some scholarships,” said North. “We’re also looking at the potential for pipeline student work opportunities, which would enable them to become comfortable with faculty, staff, and students. There are all sorts of ways that financial support could be added, such as federal grant programs. We want to work with the students to build this to make sure it meets their needs. The process of doing that is iterative and ongoing.”

Recruitment for the program started last August as students entered the U of M Health Professions Pathways Program. “We suggested the types of courses they should consider taking during their freshman year,” said North. “It was important not to bombard them.” After the holidays, Pathways students took a careers exploration class, and physical therapy was first on the list. “We had them in our DPT space in January,” said North. “We want them to understand what a commitment to physical therapy might be like.”

One of the requirements of participants is having a group or one-to-one session with Partee. After they apply, their interview is also with her. “Decisions about who will be in our inaugural cohort will be made by June,” said North. “We’re hoping to have a handful of people interested.”

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