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UNCP begins quest for a physical therapy program

March 11, 2009

The University of North Carolina at Pembroke is seeking permission from the state, the University of North Carolina system and accrediting agencies to establish a Doctorate in Physical Therapy program (DPT).


Chancellor Allen C. Meadors


Dr. Charles Harrington

The University is well positioned to offer a doctorate or a Master’s in Physical Therapy program (MPT) with a transition in the future to the DPT, said Chancellor Allen C. Meadors. A program at UNCP would have a positive impact on the University and on the region’s health and economy.

“The health of the region lags behind the state and nation, in part, because we lag behind in training of health care professionals,” Chancellor Meadors said. “UNCP has the facilities and other tools necessary to launch a high quality physical therapy program.”

The region’s health care planners, recruiters, educators and managers agree unanimously there is a severe shortage of physical therapists (PTs) in the underserved southeast region of the state where no physical therapy program is located. And training of PTs could result in the establishment of other allied health education programs, they said.

“I support this plan completely,” said Joanne Anderson, CEO of Southeastern Regional Medical Center (SRMC). “The training of PTs and other health care professionals build on each other.”

Also, there is a shortage of minority PTs, and UNCP is the most diverse University in North Carolina, Chancellor Meadors noted.

“This University has a distinguished history of training many, many undergraduates for advanced professional programs in health care,” he said. “It is an achievement we are especially proud of because locally trained professionals are likely to return to practice in their communities.”

UNCP has experience with start-ups in professional health care programs. In 2005, the University launched its 4-year, Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program to compliment its RN to BSN program.

The BSN program is located on the SRMC’s campus, and the University is ready to break ground on a $29 million health professions building that could be home to the new program.

The nursing program, with an enrollment of approximately 200, benefitted from its partnership with SRMC, a leading health care provider in the region. UNCP enjoys broad support in its proposal from a coalition of hospitals in the region.

“We recently met with 13 hospitals in our region to discuss physical therapy,” Chancellor Meadors said. “There is broad support in the health care community for the idea that a Doctorate of Physical Therapy program that would positively impact health care delivery and training in our region.”

Having a program at UNCP would also provide the region’s students an opportunity to stay in the area and attend an affordable, state-supported program, he said.

“It’s an opportunity to improve the human capital of our region’s people,” Chancellor Meadors said.


A study of allied health professionals in the 9-county area around UNCP that was funded by a $50,000 Commerce Department planning grant and led by the Southern Regional AHEC, found that PTs and PT assistants (PTAs) were the most in demand.

“We surveyed human resource departments in the region’s hospitals, which are the major employers of the allied health workforce, and the response was unanimous that PTs and PTAs were on top of their list,” said Amy Vega, director of Allied Health and Interdisciplinary Education for Southern Regional AHEC, the agency that led the formation of the Southern N.C. Allied Health Regional Skills Partnership, which conducted the study.

“Unanimously, human resources professionals reported that  PTs and PTAs are the shortest in supply among all allied health professions in the region, and are the hardest to recruit and retain,” Vega said.

“More than half of the allied health vacancies in our AHEC region were in the rehabilitation professions, to include Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Recreational Therapy, and Speech Language and Audiology,” Vega said. “Among that group of professions, PT and PTA vacancies were the majority.”

An additional PT program southeast North Carolina would create a new pipeline to supply therapists to the region, helping to reduce the staggering vacancies in the region, she concluded.

Physical therapists tend to practice in metropolitan areas of the state, according to a 2006 report from the UNC Cecil S. Sheps Center for Health Services Research titled “Trends in Licensed Health Professions in North Carolina 1979-2005.” The number of PTs in 2005 for metropolitan areas was 4.96 per 1,000 residents, but for the non-metropolitan areas was 2.91, the report concluded.

The Sheps report found there were 2,926 active PTs in metropolitan area counties of N.C., while there were 823 active PTs in rural areas. This is the experience for recruiters at First Health of the Carolinas in Pinehurst, N.C.
“I was at Western Carolina University (in February) talking with PT students,” said Teresa Sessoms, recruitment director for First Health. “The majority of students want to stay in the mountains. In Chapel Hill, they want to stay in the Triangle or another urban area.

“PTs typically want to stick around home,” Sessoms said. “Long term, it would be beneficial to have a program in our region. If we train them here, we’re more likely to keep them here.”

Demand for allied health professionals is expected to increase over the next decade, fueled in part by North Carolina’s growing and aging population, the Sheps report concluded. Eight-out-of-10 fastest growing occupations in the state are allied health professions.

Of the 12 counties in Southeastern North Carolina, nine are below median for all state counties for physical therapists per 10,000 people, the Sheps Center study said. Seven counties are below the state average of 2.32 physical therapists per 10,000 population.


A DPT program would not only be a tonic for the region’s health, it would be a stimulous to its economy and a boon to its people, UNCP administrators and region health care officials said.

“A PT program at UNCP would attract local people with ties here,” SRMC’s CEO said. “It keeps the brainpower in the community; that’s the number one factor for a rural community.”

“We’re excited about this plan because our students could continue their studies at UNCP,” said Elaine Eckels, program director for Fayetteville Technical Community College’s PT assistant program. “Besides, PT assistants can’t practice with our PTs.”

Allied health jobs represent a large and increasingly important economic growth potential for the state, numerous studies show, said Dr. Charles Harrington, UNCP’s provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs.

“Allied health jobs represent not only a large, stable and increasingly important employment sector in the state, but are an engine for economic growth,” Dr. Harrington said. “Data indicates that between 1999-2005 allied health employment in North Carolina grew by 46 percent.”


As part of the planning process for a physical therapy program, the University is using the consulting services of Dr. David Lake, chair the Department of Physical Therapy at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga., and Dr. Peggy Opitz, a retired professor and former chair of UNCP Nursing Department.

UNCP administrators have visited programs at Armstrong Atlantic State University, East Carolina University (ECU) and Medical University of South Carolina in developing the University’s proposal.

UNCP also met with representatives of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy (CAPTE) on matters of program development and accreditation. ECU’s Physical Therapy Chair, Dr. Dennis Brunt, is assisting UNCP in its physical therapy program proposal and space allocation for the new building to house physical therapy.

UNCP was approached by a group of 13 regional hospitals requesting the University establish a degree program to educate and prepare physical therapists. The hospital consortium agreed tentatively to fund a portion of the start-up expenses for the proposed physical therapy program during its first seven years.

“The power of these partnerships is critical to our proposal,” Chancellor Meadors said. “The interest of our region’s hospitals in the best indicator of the need for this program at UNCP.

“A DPT program would strengthen our entire University,” he said. “A program of this type may pave the way for other professional health care programs.”
That conclusion is supported by a 2006, UNC General Administration study titled, “Mission and Future Agenda Study-Phase I,” which said that UNCP should establish physical therapy as a “signature academic program”

Six physical therapy programs are in North Carolina. Duke University, Elon University, UNC-Chapel Hill and East Carolina University offer the Doctorate in Physical Therapy (DPT). Western Carolina University and Winston-Salem State University offer the Master’s in Physical Therapy degree (MPT).