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For more than 20 years, the master of science degree in physical therapy has been the top rung of the ladder for Columbia University physical therapy students. But that's about to change, possibly as early as this fall.

To remain competitive in physical therapy education, Columbia plans to offer a three-year doctor of physical therapy degree, known as a DPT, for the first time. The DPT will replace the two-year master's degree. "So many other universities either offer or are about to offer the DPT that Columbia needed to act now," says Dr. Risa Granick, associate professor of clinical physical therapy at P&S and director of the program in physical therapy. The program in physical therapy is part of the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at P&S.

The American Physical Therapy Association, the leading physical therapy organization in the United States, estimates that by 2006, about 85 percent of the 217 accredited physical therapy programs in the United States will shift to granting the DPT. The association accelerated the move to DPT programs when it released a vision statement in 2000 calling for all master level physical therapy programs to be phased out by 2020. Accreditation standards also are expected to change in the next few years to reflect the transition to DPT as the standard for the profession.

But it's not just a case of the need to follow the herd. Columbia is losing some of its most qualified applicants to other schools. Of the students who declined Columbia's offer for admission to its 2002 physical therapy program, 62 percent said their reason for declining was that they were accepted into a DPT program elsewhere.

From a practice perspective, physical therapy educators say the move to the DPT also is necessary because the majority of states now allow patients to go directly to a physical therapist for a few initial visits without seeing a physician first to get a referral. Therefore, it is extremely important for Columbia's students, who may find themselves working in one of these states, to attain the appropriate level of education. "Our students must learn to examine, diagnose, and treat impairments, functional limitations, and disabilities of the body," Dr. Granick says. "It is difficult to teach everything a student needs to know to meet these standards in two years."

The doctoral degree represents another step forward for Columbia's physical therapy program, one of the country's oldest. It began in 1942 as a six- to eight-week course to train physical therapists to help wounded soldiers returning from World War II. In 1960, the course evolved into a bachelor's degree program and in 1980, Columbia became the second physical therapy program in the country to offer a master's degree.

The Columbia DPT program is in the process of seeking approval from the New York State Education Department and the Committee on Accreditation of the American Physical Therapy Association. Once the approvals are granted, Dr. Granick expects to admit an inaugural DPT class of 30 students. Class size will increase to 36 in both 2004 and 2005 and level off at 40 in 2006 and beyond.

The program will use a three-semester calendar—fall, spring, and summer—so the eight-semester sequence can be finished in three years. The program includes a total of 38 weeks of clinical education. During the clinical component, students will have the option of training at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital or at any of the 350 clinical sites across the country that have contracts with the Columbia physical therapy program.

Students also must complete a capstone research project that meets peer review publication standards. Working with a faculty mentor, each student will select a project related to basic research, a clinical case study, administration or education. Current faculty research efforts include studies related to low back pain in pre- and postpartum women, integration of arm and hand movements in Parkinson's patients, recovery and quality of life in stroke survivors, and the impact of arthritis on motor skills, physical function, and quality of life in children. The program has a core faculty of nine—one part-time and eight full-time members—that will expand to 12 over the next three years.

With the DPT program in place, Dr. Granick expects the curriculum to be able to adapt to changes in the profession. "There will be a continual reassessment every year," she says. "Students, alumni, clinicians, and employers will all be involved to make sure students are competent and ready to meet current and future practice expectations."