EHM talks to John Barnes of the American Physical Therapy Association about the effects of advances in technology and changes in healthcare needs on the physical therapy profession.
EHM. What have been some of the highlights of your career so far at the association?
JB. I became the APTA’s CEO in the summer of 2007. In the past year we have had a number of successes at the APTA that have involved the board, other APTA leaders, APTA members and staff, including the successful development of a strategic plan for the association as well as the establishment of a strategic planning and thinking process; completion of reviews for all of the departments at the APTA, including reviews of our initiatives, our processes and our staff structure; the development of a comprehensive membership recruitment and retention plan; and the development of a comprehensive communications plan.
EHM. Last year the association was selected for the third successive time as one of the Top 60 Great Places to Work by Washingtonian magazine. What makes the APTA stand out in this way?
JB. This was the third time the APTA was chosen for this recognition and I can tell you why in one word: staff. I am truly proud to be part of an award-winning team of hard-working people who are dedicated to helping each other succeed at what we do best – providing quality service to our members. The APTA strives to provide the best possible benefits and work environment for staff, which includes unique offerings like weekly yoga sessions, subsidized gym memberships and onsite health screenings.
EHM. What have been some of the biggest developments in physical therapy practice over the last few years?
JB. The practice of physical therapy has grown and changed as technology and healthcare needs change. With advances in medicine and improved technology used to save lives, physical therapist practice now assists in improving/restoring function and movement and reducing pain. For example, with new technology that enhances the survival of premature infants, physical therapists are involved early in the infants’ life to minimize developmental delays and provide education and training to the family.
As healthcare needs change, physical therapist practice adjusts to meet patient/client needs. For example, physical therapists play an important role in safe and active aging through prevention, mitigation of health conditions and rehabilitation after disease or injury in the growing population of older adults who are actively aging and those who are living with chronic conditions. Other growing areas of physical therapist practice that have seen advances include fall prevention, bone health, cancer rehabilitation, physical activity/exercise, women’s health and wound care.
Finally, enhancements have been made in bridging education, practice and research to make research evidence readily available for students and clinicians. This continues to advance practice, providing safe and quality of care to our patients and clients.
As a result of their education and clinical preparation, physical therapists have emerged as independent and autonomous practitioners. Patients are able to have physical therapists evaluate their conditions without a referral in all but two states, and Medicare has significantly reduced requirements for certification and recertification of plans of care.
EHM. Please tell us about the K12 awards.
JB . One of the most exciting occurrences in physical therapy research is the awarding by the National Institutes of Health of two K12 awards to consortia comprised primarily of physical therapists. The K awards are a mechanism used by the NIH to advance the careers of junior researchers by providing funding to institutions to mentor new investigators.
The current corps of K12 scholars represents a broad range of research interests. Topics such as stroke, pediatric conditions and low back pain are being studied under the guidance of a mentor. In addition, basic science questions are being studied, such as the use of stem cells to regenerate muscle cells. Through the awarding of the K12, we can be assured that the upcoming cadre of physical therapist rehabilitation researchers will be very productive.
EHM. CareerBuilder.com recently included physical therapist and physical therapist assistant professions in its 30 Top Jobs in 2008. Why would you recommend these areas as a career?
JB. These rankings simply reflect what we have always known. Physical therapists and physical therapist assistants are highly motivated and fulfilled healthcare providers. Their satisfaction stems from improving quality of life for patients. It's gratifying to see the profession receive the recognition it deserves, and I am confident that we will continue to recruit the brightest and the best.
In an effort to show students what it is like to have a career in physical therapy, the APTA recently developed an 11-minute video titled, ‘You Can Be Me,’ which can be viewed on the American Physical Therapy Association's website at www.beapt.org. The video features physical therapist and physical therapist assistant members of the APTA who represent various physical therapy practice settings, as well as individual interviews with PTs and PTAs.
EHM. What effect will the aging population have on the need for physical therapy?
JB. As the population ages and people remain active, the demand for physical therapist services will continue to increase. As with all healthcare professionals, payment issues are a continual challenge. But we are committed to meeting these challenges by striving to provide effective care to improve the quality of life for many people.
The provision of quality physical therapist services is an issue that the profession is confronting. As the population ages, there will likely be a much larger demand for our services. This demand is not restricted to an elderly population; advances in healthcare have increased the number of potential pediatric patients as well. The APTA is working on a number of initiatives to deal with this workforce issue.
We are in the process of creating a model that will project physical therapy workforce requirements into the future. We also continue to work with other healthcare policy-makers to ensure that there is adequate support for expanding the physical therapy workforce to meet the demands of the US population.
EHM. What other challenges exist for those entering the profession?
JB. Another challenge in physical therapy practice is addressing the needs of diverse patients/clients in response to known health disparities within our healthcare system. The profession needs to continue to work to increase the number and diversity of qualified applicants to physical therapy programs as well as further expand the number and diversity of qualified academic faculty and clinical educators who serve as role models and mentors for future physical therapists and physical therapist assistants.
As the cost of higher education continues to increase at the same time as the level and availability of scholarships, grants and loans are decreasing, this raises significant concerns regarding the level of debt that students take on in completing their physical therapist and physical therapist assistant degrees. This may be a potential deterrent for some to enter physical therapy or any health profession.
EHM. What are your hopes for the association in the future?
JB. It is my hope that the American Physical Therapy Association will continue to do all it can to live up to our recently adopted Association Purpose. The APTA exists to improve the health and quality of life of individuals in society by advancing physical therapist practice.
We will do this by continuing to get better at the work we do on behalf of the members of the APTA and supporting them as they continue to provide high quality physical therapy care for their patients.
John Barnes is Chief Executive Officer of the American Physical Therapy Association. In this role, he serves as the leader of the organization and is charged with the overall management of its affairs.