National Accreditation Association Praises University’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program

Doctorate of Physical Therapy student, wearing a blue shirt and standing, performing a health assessment on a seated patient in a purple long sleeve shirt. In a healthcare facility with two onlookers.

The Quality of St. Kate's DPT Program

During its recent accreditation review, the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program at St. Catherine University received commendations “for the quality of the educational program” from the program’s national accreditation association, the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE). In addition to giving full accreditation for the next 10 years, CAPTE lauded the DPT program for its innovative curriculum and unique student learning opportunities, such as co-learning with the Physical Therapist Assistant program students and immersive service-learning experiences.

A program’s accreditation process is meant to certify that the program meets the minimum standards set by the accrediting body and typically offers no accolades. “The feedback and commendation we got was above and beyond the normal accreditation process,” DPT program director Cort Cieminski, PT, PhD, ATC, LAT, says.


Innovative Curriculum

When the program moved from a master’s to a doctorate program in 2003, the physical therapy faculty completely restructured the curriculum.

“We decided to blow it up and start fresh,” says Cieminski.

The faculty wanted to create an academic environment that better prepared graduates for their physical therapy careers. The traditional curriculum model includes four or five courses taught independently each semester, relying on external clinical fieldwork at the end of the program to provide context on how the course material applies in physical therapy practice settings. The DPT faculty decided this old model should be upended.

Cieminski says, “Adults learn better in context, so we created our curriculum structure around proven teaching principles for adult learning.” These principles emphasize integrative learning through hands-on experience, goal-oriented projects, and regular review of learned information.

Applying these adult learning principles to the DPT program, the faculty created an integrative practice settings curriculum model. Students take one class at a time in a specific physical therapy practice setting, such as acute care or rehabilitation. Each class lasts four to seven weeks and interweaves applicable subject matter and goal-oriented projects to facilitate an integrative learning environment. The students revisit each practice setting in successive courses as they advance through their degree program, building on their depth of knowledge with more complex case studies and subject matter. Additionally, St. Kate’s physical therapy students start clinical fieldwork in their first semester and throughout their education, which provides continuous opportunities for them to apply their knowledge outside of the classroom and gain valuable experience with patients and licensed physical therapists.

Only a handful of programs in the United States use this integrative practice settings model. This innovative curriculum provides context for the students’ technical education and sets them up for success in their future careers.

“We get feedback from our clinical partners that our students are able to see the bigger picture while remaining mentally nimble, which is important in a field that is changing quickly,” Cieminski remarks.

Co-learning with Physical Therapist Assistant Students

In addition to the innovative curriculum model, the DPT program also integrates co-learning experiences with the Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) program. Very few universities have both a PTA and DPT program, which gives St. Kate’s physical therapy students an excellent opportunity to work with their future colleagues as they pursue their degrees.

 These sorts of intra- and interprofessional experiences are critical to the holistic approach to education that is a hallmark of St. Kate’s Henrietta Schmoll School of Health. Dean of Health Sciences Lisa Dutton, PT, PhD, says, "Part of the mission of the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health is to educate diverse learners and engage clinical and community partners to influence health, health systems and health policy. We can facilitate this education by fostering an environment of interprofessional and experiential learning to prepare students to deliver high quality, safe, evidence-based professional care. The DPT program incorporates these goals in their curriculum and is setting a standard for physical therapy education."

Service and Social Justice in Practice

The physical therapy faculty champions St. Catherine University’s liberal arts and Catholic education mission. They teach students to serve justly in conjunction with the practical applications of physical therapy.

“Beyond technical skills, we want our students to have empathy for their patient and ‘dear neighbor,’” Cieminski says. Students are taught to advocate for those who are overlooked or disadvantaged throughout the program, culminating in an immersive service learning experience during their final year.

Setting Students Up for Success

The glowing accolades that the DPT program received during its accreditation process shine a well-deserved spotlight on this unique and innovative program. The physical therapy faculty’s hard work and ingenuity create an optimal environment to prepare future generations of physical therapists. Cieminski reflects, “Our graduates are well-rounded, both academically and ethically. This sets them apart and sets them up for success.”