How Tufts Is Answering the Call for More Physical Therapists

The new Doctor of Physical Therapy programs at the School of Medicine are graduating the first cohort of students and opening new locations in the Western U.S.
A physical therapist examines a patient's back.

Physical therapists are experts in human movement—improving patients’ ability to move, reducing their pain, and preventing disability—and the demand for these professionals is growing. The need for physical therapists is projected to increase by 21 percent by 2030, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The increase is driven in large part by 70 million aging Baby Boomers, who are staying active later in life than previous generations. Physical therapists are helping them age gracefully and stay active, as well as helping them recover from and adapt to age-related issues like heart attacks, strokes, and osteoarthritis. The increase in demand is also attributed to a rise in chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and post-COVID-19 symptoms, which can cause issues with mobility that may be treated with physical therapy.

In addition, the scope of the profession is growing as physical therapists get more involved in prevention strategies in young people to ward off future injuries, says Megan Donaldson, associate professor and program director for the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Boston program at Tufts University School of Medicine.

“PTs have a profound effect on patients' lives,” says Donaldson. “We help restore their mobility, independence, or fitness goals through a variety of modalities, including hands-on and hands-off approaches, exercises, education, and the therapeutic alliance we develop with our patients.”

What Students Can Expect

Donaldson started the Boston DPT program at Tufts on the Medford/Boston campus in 2020, and the first cohort of students from Tufts DPT will graduate in December. The School of Medicine decided to invest in the growth of physical therapy based on the success of the Boston DPT program and will open a second location in Phoenix, Arizona, with students starting this June.

“We chose Phoenix because we identified a need for physical therapists—a rather large need—in Arizona and the surrounding states,” says Eric Hegedus, professor and program director of Tufts DPT-Phoenix. “They have three major health systems there that deploy thousands of physical therapists. It made sense to expand for that reason, but also because it helped extend the Tufts University School of Medicine name west of the Mississippi, which was an important consideration.”

The accelerated nature of the program allows students to complete their degree in just over two years, as opposed to traditional three-year programs. Hegedus points out this means that students may acquire less debt than in a longer program, which can be an important consideration upon graduation.

“Each of the DPT programs are separately accredited but carry the same hybrid model, which is very innovative,” says Donaldson. “It's intentionally built to be hybrid; we didn't convert this based on COVID-19. We built it with the best educational practices in mind—sustainability, effectiveness, and quality—and we build the programs with highly recognized faculty and clinical skill instructors who, combined, have over one hundred years of experience.”

Classes include asynchronous work as well as virtual, synchronous learning, both of which can be done remotely, while clinical skills training is done in-person. Students attend clinical skill labs that are intense learning environments twice a semester for the first year of the program, and two labs during their second year. Students go to their respective campus in Boston or Phoenix for intense clinical skill immersion activities that range from six to 11 days. They complete the rest of their required 31 weeks of clinical education at sites across the country, depending on where the students live. While organizing those activities can be a logistical challenge, Donaldson says it’s a great opportunity to extend the Tufts brand nationwide.

Each class at each program can admit up to 100 students. Boston DPT’s first graduating class includes a diverse mix of individuals from 29 different states, and 40 percent of the class represents racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity. Phoenix DPT’s incoming first class boasts a similar composition. They come from an array of undergraduate majors, including some that are related to physical therapy—biology, exercise science, athletic training—and some that are not—journalism, business administration, and accounting.

Some come directly from an undergraduate program while others are a few years out of school with more life experience under their belt. The program directors say that emotional and cultural intelligence is just as important as being intellectually capable, and they look for students who are resilient, committed, and hardworking.

Next Stop: Seattle

In August 2024, Tufts DPT plans to open a third program in Seattle, Washington. The three programs are separate by accreditation standards but fit under the umbrella of Tufts DPT at the School of Medicine.

They each have their own style and feel that is related to their geographic location and faculty members, though the curriculum, credit hours, and program lengths are the same.

Evan Papa, associate professor and program director of Tufts DPT-Seattle, says he’s looking forward to a program that’s “high tech and high touch,” in the sense that students will use technology for distance-based education and will develop strong clinical skills when they’re placed on rotations.

“There are a lot of physical therapy programs around the country, but what makes Tufts different is that we have a culture of excellence, and it's driven by the individual faculty we've hired,” says Papa. “I joined in this effort because I want a culture of excellence, and Tufts has that across the board.”