Physical Therapy program celebrates 25 years

DMU Physical Therapy Program: 1990-2015Commencement is always a special occasion at a university, but 2015 is extra-special for DMU’s physical therapy program: In May it graduated its 25th class, which is also the program’s 10th class of doctors of physical therapy. Here’s the journey the program and profession have taken.


IN 1984, the University of Osteopathic Medicine and Health Sciences (UOMHS), now DMU, launched a review of the feasibility of a new physical therapy program in its College of Biological Sciences. “The addition of a physical therapy program was a logical progression for the University, especially since the principles of physical therapy and osteopathy are complementary,” stated the 1988 Pacemaker.


IN 1988, its 90th year, UOMHS admitted 32 students to its two-year master of science degree program in physical therapy. Its physical therapy clinic already was up and running.

Kathy Mercuris“Most students especially in those first years were people going for a second career,” recalls Kathy Mercuris, P.T., D.H.S., associate professor of physical therapy and one of the program’s first faculty. “We were pretty much in class from 8 to 5 for 24 months. Those kids just worked!”

Susan Martin CigelmanFellow early faculty member Susan Martin Cigelman, P.T., M.A., Ed.D., who became the program’s director in 1989, says it was “exciting” to help start a new program. “We had to prove ourselves. Everyone else on the faculty at the time were doctors,” she says. “We got put on committees like everyone else, which was a way to play a role in the University and show others we knew what we were doing.

“We got very close to that first class,” she adds. “They took a chance on us.”


Class of 1990 Physical Therapy graduatesIN 1990, UOMHS’s first physical therapy class graduated. Class member Frank Gullo designed the program’s patch, depicting open hands on either side of a flame. The number of licensed physical therapists in the United States had tripled from 30,000 in 1970 to 92,000 by 1990.

DURING THE MID-1990s, the push increased for upgrading educational standards in physical therapy. Since its inception, however, the UOMHS physical therapy program maintained a reputation for producing providers with excellent manual therapy skills. “Consistently, students and alumni say that’s a strength of the program,” Mercuris says.

Traci BushIt also was one of the first programs to integrate clinical rotations with on-campus courses. “That allows students to apply what they’ve learned and provides affirmation that this is what they want to do as a career,” says Traci Bush, P.T.’95, D.P.T., OTR/L, D.H.S., director and chair of the program. “Plus when students come back to campus after a rotation, we can teach them on a totally different level.”



IN 2002, the Commission on Accreditation for Physical Therapy Education discontinued accreditation for bachelor’s programs in physical therapy. After significant planning and development, DMU became one of the first institutions to transition its entry-level physical therapy degree to a 34-month doctoral program, graduating its first class in 2005.

Juanita Robel“The earlier we made the decision to transition to a D.P.T. program, the more beneficial it would be. It wasn’t going to help us to sit around and be in the last group,” says Juanita Robel, P.T., associate professor and a leader in revising the curriculum.

The same year, the University also began offering a post-professional doctor of physical therapy (PPDPT) degree, one of the nation’s only online programs, for therapists with master’s degrees who want to upgrade their clinical skills and academic credentials. The PPDPT program has graduated 548 students since its first class of 2004.


TODAY, the physical therapy program is in high demand for its academic rigor, but students and faculty are engaged in much more than classes. Thanks to its diversified and niche services and community education, the Physical Therapy Clinic has become the fastest growing practice in the DMU Clinic in patient visits over the past three years. Students and faculty are active volunteers at a wide variety of events, from the University’s popular annual Senior Health Fair to local marathons. The program’s research activities have expanded, too, in topics such as effects of manual therapy in patients with spinal pain and gait rehabilitation for persons with Parkinson’s disease. And several physical therapy students and faculty participate in global health service trips every year. Perhaps most important, DMU’s physical therapy students continue to achieve high scores on licensure exams.

“We have a very strong faculty, fantastic alumni and clinical partners, many of whom are our graduates,” Bush says. “We also feel blessed to be part of the University.”

Sources: Caring and Community: Osteopathic Medicine and Allied Health at Des Moines University, 1898-2003; Pacemaker

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