APTQI Supports Efforts to Educate the Next Generation of BIPOC Physical Therapists

The APTQI Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Steering Committee assists the Board of Directors in creating and supporting initiatives that will empower APTQI’s member companies to promote diversity and equity in the workplace and inclusion in the communities in which they serve. In a new guest blog post, Dr. Heidi Jannenga, Chair of APTQI’s DEI Steering Committee and Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer of WebPT, talks about APTQI’s work to advance DEI in the physical therapy workforce:      

The demand for physical therapy services is at an all-time high. The number of patients referred to and seeking care is on the rise for many reasons, including:

  1. Increased awareness of direct access,
  2. Recognition of the physical therapist as a low-cost, high-value provider for musculoskeletal issues, and
  3. A rapidly aging patient population, projected to reach 80 million seniors by 2040.

At the same time, the nation’s healthcare workforce continues to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic due to an unprecedented exodus of burnt-out providers. Since Q4 2021, it is estimated that 333,000 healthcare professionals have left the workforce, including 22,000 physical therapists. Those are crisis numbers when you pair that with the Commission on Accreditation for PT Education (CAPTE) data that reports only 12,000 graduates from PT programs in 2021 and 2022.

Many factors contribute to the shrinking PT pipeline, including the high cost of education and subsequent debt levels, as well as poor recruiting techniques to excite the next generation of physical therapists. The profession continues to lag behind other healthcare professions in terms of public awareness. Although prospects are improving, few young people know what therapists do, let alone aspire to become a physical therapist—unless they have experienced treatment themselves.

Another facet of the issue is the woeful lack of racial diversity within the physical therapy provider workforce. Only 6.5% of the US physical therapy workforce identifies as Black or Latinx, while both groups account for nearly a third of the US population. This diversity gap adds to the inequality in access to care for patients searching for providers who can better identify with them.

We know that in order to have a more diverse workforce, we must inspire and introduce a new generation of students to the field. That’s why I am honored to help APTQI lead the way in strengthening the pipeline by providing resources to high school students through a new shadow and mentorship program called The Pathway to PT.

In this exciting program, we work to educate high schoolers, with an emphasis on historically marginalized and underrepresented communities. We aim to improve awareness about the physical therapy profession and ultimately inspire students to consider a career as a physical therapist. With over 6,254 locations in 50 states plus Washington, DC represented among APTQI companies, we have a massive opportunity to make a difference in not only reducing the diversity gap, but also improving the overall workforce pipeline.

The Pathway to PT program was piloted this year in Midtown and West End Atlanta, Georgia, in APTQI member clinics TEAM Rehab and Benchmark PT. Moving forward, there are plans to expand the program to other clinics in the greater Atlanta area, like Results PT, PT Solutions, USPH, and ATI. To date, we’ve seen some exciting results as local high school students were introduced to physical therapists—including Dr. Oluremi Onifade and Dr. India Kimbro—during their annual physicals required for sports participation. When followed by an “Introduction to the Physical Therapy Profession” session during health profession career fairs, the advocacy produced some interested students who were invited to shadow providers in a clinic.         

We’ve found that the most impactful way to engage with students is by getting them into clinics to experience two hours in the life of a PT. Many students expressed an interest in learning more about the career path as they engaged with therapists who looked like them and experienced the value of patient care. The goal is to have students walk away with a desire and understanding of how to pursue a career in physical therapy, eventually obtain their doctorate in physical therapy, and ultimately work at an APTQI member company. The next steps in the 2024 plan include partnering with the doctor of physical therapy programs within Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to develop stronger connections with APTQI companies and enable more clinical internship opportunities.

“We are taking the long view on improving the pipeline of interested students who want to pursue a career as a physical therapist. We know many students of color often want to return home––and what better way to have our investment come full circle and have these future therapists come back to serve in these underserved areas than through the Pathway to PT program,” said Nikesh Patel, PT, Executive Director of APTQI.

To further strengthen the future of the physical therapy workforce and support a positive, yet shorter-term outcome, APTQI has contributed to my non-profit organization, the Rizing Tide Foundation. I founded Rizing Tide to support BIPOC physical therapy students via financial scholarships and educational enrichment. As a first-generation daughter of immigrant parents and 25-year tenured physical therapist, I had not seen the needle move on changing the racial and ethnic makeup of the PT profession. I decided to do something about that. Now in its third year, Rizing Tide has committed $1.1 million in scholarship funding to 44 future physical therapists who identify as a person of color. Rizing Tide is creating a community of future leaders in the physical therapy profession, and I am grateful that the APTQI board supports the Rizing Tide mission.     

We are not just changing lives; we are shaping the future of the physical therapy profession. With unwavering dedication, our goal is to create a profession that truly represents the diverse makeup of our society, where everyone, regardless of their background, can make a meaningful impact on the healthcare landscape. Through collaboration, determination, and the support of organizations like APTQI, we’re forging a path towards a more inclusive and equitable future for physical therapy.

Dr. Heidi Jannenga PT, DPT

Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer, WebPT

Founder, Rizing Tide Foundation