The Teaching of Basic Science as a Necessity in the Doctor in Physical Therapy Clinical Curriculum

There is an ever increasing need to train evidenced-based clinicians among all the health disciplines. This is particularly true in the relatively young profession of physical therapy, where the educational standards have shifted from entry level bachelor’s degree requirements to clinical doctorate training. The increase in educational standards reflect the growth of the discipline, with an effort to increase the depth of knowledge and level of skill required to be a physical therapist while moving from technician to an independent direct access practitioner. This evolution also marks a shift in standards of evidenced-based practice from clinical observation to an ability to provide mechanistic understanding which includes fundamental scientific insights and transforms clinical practice. The profession also recognizes the need to advance the profession through research that provides a scientific basis validating physical therapy treatment approaches. As a result, there is an expanding, yet underappreciated role, for the basic science researcher / educator in Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs.

Strategies to integrate and infuse the basic science into practice:

1. Faculty training:

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How to bridge the gap between basic science and clinical education?  As dual credentialed physical therapist and basic scientist these influence Sonja’s teaching approach, to serve as a “bridge” between foundational science content and clinical application.  Teaching across broad content areas in a DPT curriculum provides opportunities to “make the connection” from what students learn in the sciences, clinical courses, and relate these to patient diagnosis and therapeutic approaches.

While dual training is one approach, these credentials combined with years of ongoing contemporary clinical practice, are rare and impractical to implement in an academic setting. Most often DPT programs rely on PhD trained anatomists, neuroanatomists, and physiologists to teach foundational courses, often borrowed from other departments to fulfill these foundational teaching needs. Thus, Chris’s approach is through crosstalk between scientist/physiologist and clinician to serve as a role model and teach the application of discoveries for identifying best evidence in clinical decision making. By either approach, we have become that key bridge teaching and demonstrating how foundational science, both basic and applied impact clinical decision making.

2. Placement of foundational science courses (physiology, neuroscience, anatomy):

Traditional curricular approaches introduce foundational sciences in anatomy, neuroscience, and physiology in the first year of the DPT curriculum, followed by clinical content with either integrated or end loaded clinical experiences over the course of remaining 2.5-3 years. Our current program established an alternative approach of introducing foundational sciences after the introduction of clinical content and subsequently followed by a full time clinical clerkship/ education. Having taught in both models, early or late introduction of foundational sciences, we recognized either partitioned approaches lead to educational gaps and makes bridging the knowledge to application gap challenging for students.

Regardless, the overall message is clear and suggestive of the need for better integration of foundational/scientific content throughout the curriculum. These challenges are not unique to physical therapy, as this knowledge to clinical translation gap is well documented in medicine and nursing and has been the impetus for ongoing curriculum transformations in these programs. These professions are exploring a variety of approaches on how to best deliver /package courses / and curriculum that foster rapid translation into clinical practice. Arena, R., et al., 2017; Fall, L.H. 2015; Newhouse, R.P. and Spring, B., 2010; Fincher et al., 2009.

Recently, new curricular models have emerged within the doctoral of physical therapy curriculum that complement the academic mission to train competent evidenced based clinicians Bliss et al., 2018, Arena R. et al. 2017. These models leverage the faculty expertise of physiologist/scientist, research, and clinical faculty to create integrative learning experiences for students. These models include integrated models of clinical laboratory learning and/ or classroom-based discussion of case scenarios, that pair the basic scientist and the clinical expert. It is our belief, that teaching our clinical students through these models will lead to enhanced educational experience, application of didactic course work, and the appreciation for high quality research both basic and applied.

3. Appreciation and value of foundational sciences through participation in faculty led research:

Capstone experiences are common curricular elements for the physical therapy profession. This model is believed to 1) prepare future physical therapy generations to provide high-quality clinical care and, 2) provide research needed to guide evidence-based care, and 3) foster the appreciation for evidence and advances in the field. We believe these pipeline experiences could allow for advanced training incorporating strong foundational (science) knowledge that is relevant to the field, which can be applied broadly and adapted to integrate the rapidly growing knowledge base. Such models may assist in integrating the importance of scientific findings (basic and applied) while facilitating the breakdown of barriers (perceived and real) that silo clinical and foundational content (Haramati, A., 2011).

Contributing to the barriers are that relatively few of the basic sciences and translational studies are being conducted by rehabilitation experts. Furthermore, like medicine disciplines, it is unlikely that DPT faculty will be experts as both a clinician and scientist. Rather these emerging models promote teams of scientists and clinical faculty who work together to promote scientific, evidence-based education (Polancich S. et al., 2018; Read and Ward 2017; Fincher et al., 2009). Implementation of these education models requires “buy in” from administration and faculty who must recognize and value a core of outstanding clinician-educators, clinician-scientists, and basic scientists, and reward effective collaboration in education (Fincher 2009).

Although these models are flowering in research intensive universities, the challenges of integrating the basic sciences are greater in programs embedded within smaller liberal arts institutions that lack the infrastructure and administrative support for creating teaching-science-clinical synergies. Often these programs are heavily weighted towards clinical education faculty who emphasize clinical teaching and development of clinical skills, with a less integrated emphasis on the fundamental science in clinical decision making. Our own experience, having taught foundational (physiology and neuroscience) sciences, are that faculty in these programs are more reluctant to embrace and value foundational sciences. A possible explanation may be the limited exposure to and unrecognized value of contributions to the field from such basic and translational approaches. It is frequently implied if it works, it may not be necessary to understand mechanistically how it works. While this might suffice for today’s practice approach, this will not be enough for future clinicians in a rapidly evolving clinical environment. Programs that may not foster scientific curiosity, may be missing the opportunity to instill lifelong learning. We agree with other educators that the integration of basic science is critical for the student progress toward independence and essential competence, and that health science educators should support the teaching of basic science as it aids in the teaching of how to solve complex clinical scenarios even if clinicians may not emphasize the basic science that underlies their reasoning (Pangaro, 2011).

Concluding Thoughts:

Physical therapy departments particularly those within major academic centers housing a mix of research, education, and clinically focused faculty can successfully operate a curriculum able to synergize education, research, and clinical initiatives. Creating synergies early in a curriculum by pairing clinical specialists with science trained faculty will facilitate connections between clinical practice and science (Bliss, et al., 2018). While curricular change can be challenging, programs that implement a collaborative model where faculty with a shared area of expertise (e.g., orthopedics, neurology, cardiopulmonary, pediatrics and geriatrics) and unique complementary skill sets (i.e., research, education, and clinical practice) come together to transform student educational experiences – completing that bridge between basic science and clinical practice.

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Arena, R., Girolami, G., Aruin, A., Keil, A., Sainsbury, J. and Phillips, S.A.,

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Chris Wingard completed his BA in Biology form Hiram College a MS from University of Akron and PhD from Wayne State University. He has served in physiology departments at University of Virginia, Medical College of Georgia and East Carolina University during his career and has most recently joined the Bellarmine University College of Health Professions as Professor teaching in the Physical Therapy, Accelerated Nursing and Biology Programs.  His interests are in the impacts of environmental exposures on the function of the cardiovascular pulmonary systems.
Sonja Bareiss received a BS in Biology and Master’s in Physical Therapy from Rockhurst University. She completed her PhD in Anatomy and Cell Biology at East Carolina University. Dr. Bareiss was a faculty member at East Carolina University Department of Physical Therapy and Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology before joining the DPT program at Bellarmine University. Her areas of teaching span foundational sciences (neuroscience and anatomy) to clinical content (electrical modalities). Her most recent efforts have been to develop and implement a pain mechanisms and management course into physical therapy curriculum with emphasis on interdisciplinary learning. In addition to her academic experience, Dr. Bareiss has over 8 years of full-time clinical experience where she specialized in treating patients with chronic pain syndromes. Her research and clinical interests have been dedicated to understanding mechanisms of neural plasticity related to the development and treatment of pain and neurodegenerative disease and injury and integrating undergraduate Biology Honors and DPT students into the work.

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