By Kim Barto Meeks

Patrick Henry Community College is not giving up on establishing a new physical therapist assistant (PTA) program after approval was denied in May.

During its regular quarterly meeting on Monday, the PHCC board learned more about the competitive and complicated process of earning accreditation in a presentation by Amy Webster, the college’s director of nursing and allied health.

The new associate degree program had already been approved at three levels by local, state, and regional bodies, but was turned down at the national and final level by CAPTE, the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. PHCC is appealing the decision, and CAPTE will reconsider the college’s application at a hearing in Alexandria on Oct. 25.

PHCC’s president, Dr. Angeline Godwin, told the board that she hoped their biggest takeaway was that “you can see the level of complexity required to pursue accreditation.”

At the hearing, college representatives will have 90 minutes to present and defend their proposal. If approved, PTA students could begin classes at PHCC as soon as January 2020. The program takes five semesters, or two years, to complete.

“I believe we’ll be successful,” Godwin said. “We have spent a lot of time and resources on this. The team has worked very hard. …It’s really what our students deserve.”

Physical therapist assisting is “a growing and dynamic need, with a nice sustainable wage,” she said.

In her presentation, Webster said the process of starting the PTA program began in 2015 in response to the anticipated workforce needs.

According to Amanda Broome, the college’s public relations and social media manager, “PHCC was looking at opportunities for growth and to provide an additional associate degree program that led to employment in the health field.” Surveys of prospective students and health care employers showed an interest in bringing a physical therapist assistant program to the area.

Colin Ferguson, PHCC’s dean of STEM-HAP (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, and Health and Applied Programs), oversees the college’s health programs. While he was not in this position when PHCC first began pursuing accreditation, he said there is a definite need for qualified physical therapist assistants in Henry County, and the program fits well with the college’s registered nursing and other health science programs.

“Physical therapist assistants make a very good living, and with the aging population, it’s definitely a great need in our community,” Ferguson said.

At the time PHCC began planning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected employment in this area to grow 41 percent nationally from 2014 to 2024. The latest BLS statistics show a projected growth of 26 percent between 2018 and 2028, which is still much faster than the average growth of 5 percent for all occupations. The national median annual wage for physical therapist assistants was $58,040 in May 2018.

However, students currently have to travel outside the area to pursue this career field. Ferguson said the closest community college program in Virginia is in Wytheville. The CAPTE website also shows Radford University as a provider, and the only other Virginia programs are in Richmond, Virginia Beach, and northern Virginia. Some North Carolina colleges offer the degree, but Virginia residents pay higher out-of-state tuition rates to attend.

As part of CAPTE’s requirements, PHCC had to hire two full-time physical therapists to oversee and teach the program, as well as purchase specialized equipment. This included treatment tables, high-low tables, step trainers, a variety of balance equipment, ultrasound tools, strength and weight training systems, various splints, stump trainers, and many others, Broome said.

 

Before submission to CAPTE, PHCC’s proposal first had to be approved by the local college board, the Virginia Community College system, SCHEV (State Council for Higher Education in Virginia), and SACS-COC, the region’s college accrediting body.

Godwin noted that SACS-COC has very high standards, and yet they approved PHCC’s application on the strengths of its written answers, without doing a site visit.

“SACS gave only glowing, glowing reviews,” she told the board. “It is extraordinary for them to not do a site visit.”

Webster said the CAPTE process is very competitive, as they only consider 12 programs at a time and currently have more than 30 awaiting approval.

The reasons for CAPTE’s denial of accreditation in May were not made clear during the meeting, but Broome provided the following explanation via email: “The Commission’s decision to Deny Candidate for Accreditation status is based on the failure of the program to demonstrate satisfactory progress toward accreditation. The program was judged as not being ready to implement a physical therapy education program at the time of the receipt of the report. Denial of candidacy is an adverse decision and is eligible for reconsideration by CAPTE.”

Accreditation is “a long difficult journey,” Ferguson said. “It’s disappointing when you get a setback, but you just have to buckle down and keep trying, knowing it’ll be worth it in the end.”

When PHCC first announced the program, it received 24 applications. The college hopes to begin accepting applications again in November if it achieves accreditation.

Physical therapist assistants work under the supervision of a physical therapist in settings such as hospitals, outpatient clinics, home health agencies, rehabilitation centers, schools, nursing homes, and sports/fitness facilities, according to information provided by the college. They teach patients exercises for improved mobility, strength, and coordination; provide training for walking and balance using devices such as canes, crutches, or walkers; and provide soft tissue

mobilization/massage or apply physical agents and electrotherapy such as ultrasound or electrical stimulation.

“To be a good candidate for this career field, it would be important to want to help people, care about their ability to rehabilitate from injuries that result from trauma or disease, and have a desire to make a difference in the health and lives of people,” Webster said in an email.