Kathy Light, chair of the Brenau Physical Therapy Department

Learning by Heart

Physical therapy is a hands-on science. Practical experience with patients matters. Brenau is building a program that will serve the needs of both its doctoral candidates and the community.

Physical therapy is all about movement.  The idea is to give patients who are sick – and even people who are healthy – the ability to move so they can live well and thrive.

Kathye Light, chair of Brenau’s department of physical therapy, asserts that the same idea applies to students learning about physical therapy: the best way to make progress is to get active in learning.

“So much of what we do in physical therapy is very hands-on, very interactive with the client,” says Light. “Students really need to have that clinical experience to make what they learn in the classroom meaningful.”

For students earning a Doctor of Physical Therapy at Brenau, that hands-on, clinical experience from the start will be the underpinning of their education.

Brenau announced the formation of the DPT program in 2012, but there is still much that is new about it. The program has new faculty: Light and Mary Thigpen, Ph.D., came to Brenau from the University of Florida in July 2013 charged with building a world-class physical therapy department from scratch. The program has new facilities: the Brenau University Downtown Center in Gainesville underwent a $6.7 million transformation into a state-of-the-art space for teaching and researching physical therapy and other health sciences and is about to add a $750,000 human anatomy lab for use of physical therapy and other health sciences students. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges approved Brenau’s application to offer the doctorate. The university planned this spring to complete its application to the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education for similar approval. Moreover, the DPT program is clinical in its approach: based on Light and Thigpen’s vision for a curriculum that focuses on getting students out of the classroom and into the clinic as quickly as possible.

The university believes that the program’s approach will also lead to some exciting innovations for Brenau and for Gainesville.

“There’s a lot of receptivity to new creative ways of doing things at Brenau. And we’re having a lot of fun exploring that,” Light says.


For students in many health sciences professional programs, the pursuit of an advanced degree is like drinking from a fire hose: it involves two or three years of intense classroom learning intended to help them know the basics of their field by heart. Physical therapy students can go a full two years in a program without encountering a single real patient. With hands-on patient experience, what they learned in the classroom becomes instinctive in clinical settings.

That experience can leave students with a brain full of facts without a true understanding of how they apply.

Physical Therapy rooms
Furnishings in Brenau Downtown Center reveal that even classroom activities in the program will involve hands-on experience.

“It’s like learning to play tennis, but instead of playing, we’re just going to tell you about tennis. For two years, you’re never going to hold a racket,” says Thigpen, the new director of clinical education for the DPT program.

Brenau’s DPT students will have a different experience. The students will still begin with intensive classroom training in basic science, like human anatomy, physiology and basic medical technical skills – “like boot camp,” Light says – followed by courses on ethics, communication and professionalism. However, after a single semester, students will start working in the clinic, applying what they learned in the classroom by treating real patients.

Gale Starich, dean of Brenau College of Health Sciences and the university’s graduate school, says more universities are realizing that early entry into the clinic makes students better at developing crucial skills like clinical judgment, communication and quick critical thinking.

“It just doesn’t come alive for the students until they can interact with patients,” Starich says. “And a lot of students didn’t want to go into a health field to sit in a classroom for eight hours a day. They want to be caring for people in the clinics.”

Giving students proper clinical training is also important for achieving national accreditation for a DPT program. The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, or CAPTE, the national accrediting body for physical therapy programs, requires that all DPT programs must include professional curricula that offer a variety of clinical educational experiences for all students before the program can achieve accreditation.

Brenau is currently working toward making its DPT program ready for accreditation. According to Light, the program planned to submit the accreditation paperwork to CAPTE in June. Evaluators from the organization will visit Brenau in late summer. If that body approves the program, Brenau could begin enrolling students for its first DPT cohort by late 2014 and offer its first classes in the summer of 2015.

Kathye Light and the Mondopad
The physical therapy facilities have been equipped with the latest technologies, like interactive Mondopad monitors in every classroom.

Before DPT students can sign up for clinical experience, Brenau must make sure they have places to train in areas like acute care, rehabilitation and wellness. Light and Thigpen are developing a plan with health care facilities such as the Northeast Georgia Health System to improve patient care and provide clinical training for students at the same time.

NGHS is one of the major providers of physical therapy and other rehabilitation services in north Georgia, with its main hospital, the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, and a network of outpatient clinics. The system has a history of strong partnerships with Brenau’s health sciences programs.

Kevin Gohman, director of inpatient services for the Northeast Georgia Medical Center Rehabilitation Institute, says taking on students to train is a major responsibility for hospital staff, but it is a valuable relationship for everyone.

“Students ask tough questions. They challenge what we are doing. It keeps us invigorated and thinking forward,” he says. “Most of our physical therapists will tell you it helps them stay excited about the field.”

Physical therapy is becoming a larger priority for hospital systems like NGHS. Increasingly, medical research is linking physical movement to improved health and better outcomes for patients recovering after conditions like injuries, strokes and cancer. But having the staff to provide quality services for every patient can be a challenge. By taking on Brenau DPT students, Gohman says NGHS can benefit from extra skilled help while contributing to the profession of physical therapy.

“If we help them learn, it’s going to benefit our field and it’s going to benefit our community,” he says. “It’s not just what can you do for us, but what can we do together?”


Working with partners like NGHS, Light also wants the DPT program to make a difference in Gainesville and the surrounding areas. After the program is accredited and established, Light and her fellow DPT faculty members will launch a faculty physical therapy practice, operating out of the DPT program’s new Brenau Downtown Center facility. The practice will complement, not duplicate, the services provided at NGHS and other area health care facilities. Faculty can provide care for patients who have maxed out their insurance coverage but still need rehabilitation or for those who need more specialized physical therapy services. The model would help NGHS and other health care providers with their patient loads, but it will also give DPT students another opportunity for more clinical training.

Along with healing sick patients, Brenau’s DPT program will focus on the true mission of physical therapy: helping people live healthy and thrive. The vision is to build a community wellness cooperative that will connect people in Gainesville, especially older adults, to a system of support and wellness opportunities. Working with the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce, the not-for-profit cooperative will bring together groups from around the city that currently offer services – classes, social outreach and wellness programs, for instance – and unify them under the leadership of Brenau faculty.

“We want to cooperate and share our rich lives with each other,” Light says. “The idea is to tap into each person’s creative thoughts and aspirations, and have them take responsibility for their own health and wellness.”

Dr. Mary Thigpen, left, works with professionals like Dr. Daniel Maddox and Paige Wilson at ProTherapy in Dunwoody, Georgia, in developing sufficient locations to give doctoral students all the practical experience they can get while completing their degrees.
Dr. Mary Thigpen, left, works with professionals like Dr. Daniel Maddox and Paige Wilson at ProTherapy in Dunwoody, Georgia, in developing sufficient locations to give doctoral students all the practical experience they can get while completing their degrees.

The cooperative’s services will focus on three areas of wellness: the mind, the body and the spirit. A person who enrolls could sign up for an art or computer class, get active with a walking group or a cooking class and be connected to a social network interested in volunteer work. Or they could just get a weekly cup of coffee. DPT students, too, will be part of the cooperative, serving as coaches to those who sign up for services.

“Right away as we build the co-op, we’ll get them involved,” Light says.

While supporting the community’s health, the cooperative could also help small businesses that struggle with implementing aspects of the U.S. Affordable Care Act. One of the significant underlying components of the health reform law is its focus on early diagnostics and broader therapies for earlier detection and correction of conditions. In addition to requiring insurance companies to cover a broader range of activities than they have in the past, it also requires businesses to ensure that employees have opportunities for wellness and preventive services. The idea is to help drive health care costs down by enabling patients to undergo physical therapy that might help them avoid extremely expensive surgery. Light says the cooperative could serve as a resource for local small businesses to fulfill that aspect of the law.

Brenau will pilot a version of the cooperative in September with the opening of a new Gainesville senior community, Myrtle Terraces.

For Gainesville, Brenau’s home town, creating services for older adults could be even more pressing in the coming years. The AARP has named Gainesville the best Georgia city for retired people. Starich says the wellness needs of this demographic will likely continue to increase, and Brenau is developing programs like the wellness cooperative that can help address them.

“People want to feel competent, like they are continuing to improve their minds, care for their bodies and contribute to the community,” she says. “If you think about a lot of folks who are isolated, this is a way to help them get connected, improve their health and continue to challenge their intellect. This is a way that all of us can learn to age successfully without focusing our later years on chronic diseases.”


Being connected is also important for students in the health sciences. The DPT program will be part of Brenau’s focus on interdisciplinary education for students in the health sciences. The goal is to ingrain in future health care professionals the habit of working together, preparing them for the future of the field where integrated care is increasingly a focus.

In integrated care, a health care team including physicians, nurses, physical therapists and others shares information and creates a common treatment plan for each patient. This patient-centered care is a major focus of the Affordable Care Act. Research studies from the Institute of Medicine and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have discovered that health care systems need to improve how they coordinate and communicate about a patient’s health.

“If you look at health care across the world, there’s a push for better interaction and integration across disciplines. It’s more efficient, you get better outcomes and it creates far less waste,” Light says.

Brenau students from physical therapy, occupational therapy, nursing and other disciplines will take certain classes together and train together in clinics, including the faculty practice and wellness cooperative envisioned for the DPT program. The hope is that interdisciplinary learning will lead to interdisciplinary professional practice, making Brenau and its community a better place.

“To me, this is truly a patient-centered program,” Thigpen says. “If everyone works together, that’s how we’ll be able to make a difference.”

Decatur, Ga.-based freelance writer Carrie Gann studied journalism and medical journalism at Emory University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She worked previously as a medical reporter and editor at CNN and with Dr. Richard Besser at ABCnews.com.

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