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Fostering a diverse population of physical therapists starts here

While enrollment of underrepresented students in physical therapy programs continues to rise in the United States, there is still a gap in the representation of socioeconomic and racial diversity among physical therapy practitioners that leads to challenges in building crucial relationships with patients. While students in the Division of Physical Therapy in the Department of Allied Health Sciences will inevitably encounter people of various ethnicities and cultural backgrounds in their careers, data shows that dissatisfaction in healthcare is pronounced among racial minorities. For example, minorities often report that their doctors do not understand them nor respect their values and beliefs, and that they are looked down on by their providers. When patients feel heard and understood, they are more likely to follow treatment plans and less likely to miss appointments. Not only does feeling valued benefit one’s cooperation of care, but it can reduce health care costs and medical errors and improve health outcomes. Although physical therapists listen to patients and attempt to make them feel understood, poor communication skills with patients of diverse backgrounds and the lack of diversity of health care professionals can prevent a positive patient-provider relationship. These barriers ultimately contribute to racial and ethnic disparities of care. While there is still a lot of progress that needs to be made to ensure all patients are treated with equal respect and dignity, the attempt to solve this issue can and should start in the classroom.

Goals of the SPTA’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee

This year, Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) student Deanna Sipes, class of 2019, formed the Diversity and Inclusion Committee in the Student Physical Therapy Association (SPTA) to address some of these issues and their influence in the DPT program at UNC-Chapel Hill. The goal of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee is to focus on enhancing diversity and inclusion in the program and, in turn, the field of physical therapy. The committee’s main goals are the following:

(1) enhance the diversity of incoming classes and new faculty hires;

(2) provide resources and support to promote success for underrepresented students in the program;

(3) enhance inclusion and education of diverse populations within the program and curriculum; and

(4) conduct cultural competence trainings for current students and faculty to better relate to patients from all walks of life.

Organizational outreach to diversify DPT applicant pools

To address the goals of expanding the diversity of the UNC-Chapel Hill DPT student body, the committee and other PT students have engaged with multiple organizations and participated in outreach events this year, including the Boys and Girls Club of Durham, Charles E. Jordan High School, Tar Heel Outreach day, Minority Association of Pre-Health Students (MAPS), Project Uplift (PU) and more. At these events, DPT students worked with underrepresented individuals in the area to share information about physical therapy and allow those interested to participate in functional assessments, like Timed Up and Go, with assistive devices. The goal of this outreach is to interest underrepresented individuals in physical therapy as a career and improve the diversity of future applicant pools. Committee members and other UNC-Chapel Hill DPT students are continuing to educate themselves outside of the DPT program by involvement in University programs and events such as the Annual Minority Health Conference.

Joining forces with department-wide initiatives

The committee has met with program director Deborah Givens, PT, PhD, and faculty member Lisa Johnston, PT, PhD, to discuss what the DPT program is doing to seek out and support underrepresented applicants. The committee is actively working to gather resources to support underrepresented students that are currently in the program. They are also developing a resource guide that has information about student and community groups and scholarships with the help of the Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Team, a group composed of students, faculty, and staff from across the department with the goal of supporting and fostering an inclusive learning environment. Additionally, the committee is collaborating with  UNC-Chapel Hill DPT alumni to establish a mentor program for underrepresented students in the program. Committee member Jennell McIntosh, Class of 2018, dedicated her capstone project to researching strategies to address implicit biases in clinical practice to adjunct the psychosocial curriculum.

Be on the lookout for more from the Diversity and Inclusion Committee and the SPTA! If you are interested in being more involved with the committee, please reach out to Deanna Sipes at