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FSC’s Physical Therapy Program Helps Fill Needs Among Growing Populations

December 15, 2022 News

With an aging and more diverse population in Polk County, the need for more physical therapists is increasing, and Florida Southern College’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program (DPT) is working to close the gap.  

The Lakeland college started its program in 2019 following a needs assessment. Nationally, about 15,000 openings for physical therapists will exist each year from 2021 to 2031, a result of people leaving the workforce or switching jobs, according to the American Physical Therapy Association. Employment of physical therapists is projected to grow 17% during that same time frame. 

“The mission of Florida Southern College is to prepare students through extraordinary educational programs to make a positive and consequential impact on society. As we have engaged in strategic planning for our academic programs, disciplines that will have a positive impact on the health of those in our community have been prioritized,” said FSC President Anne Kerr. “We are proud of the strength and exceptional quality of our nursing programs, at the bachelor’s, master and doctoral levels. Our research showed that there was a great need for physical therapists in our regions, so our provost, Kyle Fedler, and a planning committee recommended the launch of this major program. It has exceeded all of our expectations for quality and positive impact.” 

About the Program

The mission of the FSC program, according to the college’s website, “is to prepare entry-level physical therapy practitioners through dynamic engaged learning experiences and equip them with skills to provide patient-centered, evidenced-based care, and have a positive impact on the community.” Students will take 108 credit hours of classes and 36 weeks of full-time practicums to earn their degree in 2 ½ years. The program is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. 

Physical therapists and physical therapist assistants help people maximize their quality of life, said Nancy Nuzzo, dean of the School of Physical Therapy and the program’s director. That includes helping them rehab following surgery or avoid surgery.  

“The Doctor of Physical Therapy program distinguishes itself through its community-based approach to helping meet the health needs of Polk County residents while teaching students essential physical therapy skills,” said Prisca Collins, the School of Physical Therapy’s Director of Community Engagement. 

Community Need

The need in Polk County is great as the county’s population continues to increase, especially among certain groups, Collins said. Populations within Polk County that are increasing the demand for physical therapists include:  

  • Those ages 65 and older. The population of that age group increased more than 37% from 2010 to 2021. 
  • The Hispanic/Latino population. That population increased almost 10% in the same time period, from 107,111 to 206,452 people, according to USAFacts.org. 

“The DPT student cohorts have averaged 33% minority students, with an average of 12% being Hispanic,” Nuzzo said. “This means more physical therapists are likely to be bilingual and communicate more effectively to help better serve the increasing Hispanic population.” 

To help students obtain hands-on experience while in college, the program partnered with Lakeland Volunteers In Medicine (LVIM) in Spring 2019 to provide pro bono services to uninsured or underinsured residents of Polk County, Collins said. “The program has provided more than 1,000 hours of free PT services so far.” 

The program also has partnerships locally with Florida Presbyterian Homes, One More Child, Lakeland Regional Health and Parkview Medical Center, Nuzzo said. In addition, “We have hundreds of contracts with facilities across the country where our students are assigned clinical internships.” 

Of the 23 students who graduated in the program’s first class, about 30% are practicing in Polk County, helping to meet the health needs here, Nuzzo said. Another 31 students will graduate in December 2022. 

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