FPTR-Funded Researcher Studies Institutional Policy and Financial Forces that May Affect Diversity in Physical Therapy Profession

Researcher Tara Dickson, PT, DPT, PhD, was awarded the first ever scholarship funded through the Education Endowment Fund. This fund was established with a generous gift by the APTA Academy of Education (formerly the Academy of Physical Therapy Education). Dickson is using her Foundation for Physical Therapy Research (FPTR) funding to learn more about underrepresentation of minority groups within the profession.

In 2007, FPTR partnered with the APTA Academy of Education (formerly the Academy of Physical Therapy Education) to establish an Education Endowment Fund. In 2019, the Academy of Education gifted FPTR an additional half-a-million to enhance the development and implementation of evidence-based education practices. As a result, the first scholarship from this fund was awarded to Tara Dickson, PT, DPT, PhD.

In a recent publication – funded in part through this scholarship – Dickson looked at determining faculty and programmatic characteristics that could increase graduates of color. Among the findings, Dickson’s research showed that mentorship led to higher retention rates of minority students and that an increase of graduates of color was attributed to an increase in core faculty members of color. We recently spoke with Dickson to learn more about her work and how she is continuing to advance education research during COVID 19-related closures and research disruptions.

What implications do you hope your research have on the physical therapy profession and patient care?

Over my relatively short career in physical therapy education, I have begun several lines of inquiry including that of institutional policy and finance, student loan debt, financial literacy, faculty qualifications, interprofessional education, and clinical teaching effectiveness. I hope that my recently published paper on the effects of educational policy on racial and ethnic diversity in physical therapy programs creates an opportunity for a productive discussion on diversity, equity, and inclusion, which has recently been brought forth as a priority from the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). More generally, I hope that my research allows for improvements in the outcomes of physical therapy students in terms of learning while in the classroom and the clinic, declines in the rate of debt upon graduation, and better access to high-quality education for underrepresented groups.

Why do you think there is a need for research in physical therapy education specifically?

Like the need for clinical and basic science research to support evidence-based practice, there is a need for a better understanding of best practices for teaching and learning within the classroom. We know the importance and usefulness of standardized outcomes measures to determine the effectiveness of physical therapy interventions. Yet, we are not using those principles to the same degree in the classroom, and we certainly have not been using those principles to develop faculty members or to create effective educational policy. I think we owe it to our students, faculty, and patients to create a body of research from which to establish effective methods for teaching and faculty development and from which to make decisions on funding for higher education.

What advice do you have for emerging researchers to encourage more education-related research?

I would encourage emerging researchers to create ties outside of the profession and incorporate ideas from other disciplines to expand our thinking. Much of the theory and evidence base for my research originated from higher education, economics, and sociology literature. My ideas are not new—I have just applied ideas from other fields to the physical therapy profession.

How has COVID impacted your work? How have you had to adjust?

Much of my research is based on secondary data, and thus I am still able to collect data and analyze it with social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders. Some of my survey studies have been on hold due to COVID 19, but in comparison to those doing basic science and clinical research, I count myself lucky. I think the current situation presents an opportunity for education researchers to find more effective methods to teach using educational technology.

Tara Dickson, PT, DPT, PhD, is a doctoral candidate in the Higher Education Program at the University of North Texas. Dickson is also Assistant Director for Clinical Education at UT Southwestern Medical Center. The Foundation for Physical Therapy Research (FPTR) funds grants, scholarships, and fellowships that help us learn more about the efficacy of physical therapy, pioneer new treatments, and define the value of clinical practice. 

Select Foundation Grants and Scholarships Awarded