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Physical Therapy Program Welcomes First Cohort

—By Rod Jones

The first cohort of Oklahoma City University’s new Doctor of Physical Therapy program has officially joined the campus community. The new group of students got a head start on classes in July, about a month before the rest of the student body arrived for the fall semester.

OCU trustees approved the 31-month program in 2017. Since then, a team of faculty has been working nonstop to build a successful program.

Director Dr. Maria Jones has 30 years of experience in the field as an educator, clinician, and researcher. Jones said she and her team spent countless hours the past three years to prepare for the program’s launch. Tasks included combing the campus to find what resources it had—such as potential classroom and lab spaces—and what would need to be added to make the program work.

Physical Therapy group photos

Most classes are held in Sarkeys Science and Math Center (formerly the Sarkeys Law Center) with a customized laboratory in the Dawson-Loeffler Science and Mathematics Center. The program plans to occasionally use the recently built nursing labs in the Kramer School of Nursing.

The eight-semester professional curriculum combines full-time didactic and clinical education coursework. The program plans to admit a cohort of 36 students annually. The clinical portion of the curriculum includes service learning, integrated clinical experiences, and full-time clinical experiences.

Dr. Greg Dedrick, one of the program’s six professors, said the field has a broad range of specialties: pediatrics, geriatrics, emergency room care, highly specific areas such as wound care, and work in primary education school systems. OCU’s program is geared toward developing leadership skills and study in primary practice domains, inviting students to select their own areas of interest while gaining an understanding of the practice as a whole.

Dedrick, an orthopedic specialist, brings experience starting a new physical therapy program. He was the founding director of a PT program at Campbell University in North Carolina in 2012. He said OCU’s is slightly different in how much time is spent in the classroom and in the volume of lab time.

Generally, students are in class from about 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. four days per week. They develop knowledge and skills throughout the semester until they transition to clinical training for real-world experience in December. Dedrick said the clinical training particularly helps the students develop communications skills in working with patients and healthcare providers.

“The clinicals are in place to gain a breadth of experience and refine decision-making skills,” he said.

The market demand for physical therapists is strong. Dedrick cited a jobs report study by government regulators forecasting a 15 to 20% expansion from 2030 to 2035. Such a high-demand forecast has resulted in an increased number of new programs nationwide but not necessarily in Oklahoma’s region, he said.

“There are not a lot of programs around us, but there is a lot of need for more health care,” he said. “The East and West Coasts are saturated, but we only have three programs in all of Oklahoma.”

He said emerging areas of growth in PT are in emergency departments, critical care, and health/wellness. With COVID-19, PTs have played a critical role in rehabilitation of patients with cardiac and pulmonary complications.

Dr. Maria Jones started OCU's Physical Therapy program.

Sports participation is a common conduit by which students gravitate toward physical therapy as a trade, he said. One such student is Jaime Perez, who grew up playing soccer and other sports.

As with many students starting out in physical therapy, Perez was surprised at how much they needed to learn right out of the gate.

“It’s a lot of information thrown at you,” Perez said. “There’s not much time to slack around.”

Perez started out as a medical/molecular biology major at Rogers State University. He transitioned to a sports management degree with a business administration minor at RSU before turning his focus back to health care with OCU’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program.

“I got the bug to go back to school,” he said. “I’m very active, and I like to work with people. This checks both of those boxes.”

“I wanted to find a way to give back to my community,” Perez said. “There’s not a lot of understanding about physical therapy in the Hispanic community. I thought that if I do this, I could bring back what I learn to make a positive impact.”

For more information or to learn how to apply, visit okcu.edu/doctor-physical-therapy/home/.

Physical Therapy pulse
Clinical Assistant Professor Zachary Huff shows Doctor of Physical Therapy students how to check patients’ blood pressure in the new PT lab in the Dawson-Loeffler Science & Mathematics Center.
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