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Raising the Bar in Rehab

Quality Education and the DPT Degree

Published March 8, 2012 3:39 PM by Lisa Mueller

A comment was recently left on one of the blogs I wrote last summer regarding the DPT reputation and the obligation of the APTA to reduce the costs of the DPT degree.


I left Marquette University with a beautiful DPT degree and a lot of debt. If I compare the amount of money I owe to homes for sale in the Milwaukee area and I could be sitting on a one-acre, three-bedroom home in a lovely suburb, it is a lot of money. Those amounts of money have more weight now that I am a working professional. Given the economy on top of the debt position I am in, it's hard to get ahead. I wish someone had talked with me before I entered the PT program to explain the gravity of the debt I was about to take on. I'm not sure it would have changed my mind about my career path, or if it would have changed anything about my education, but it would have given me more knowledge. And, knowledge is power. Going into a doctorate degree ignorant of the financial consequences is something I regret, and I hope students today understand what they are taking on by enrolling in a PT program.

I met many other recent graduates at the CE course I attended last weekend, and we discussed the differences in our DPT programs. Two of the other students who graduated from different Wisconsin DPT programs had computer-based anatomy courses. The schools, for whatever reason, did not offer a gross anatomy dissection course and instead relied on computer software programs for students to learn human anatomy. Physical therapy students who will later graduate and become the musculoskeletal experts are learning from a computer.

In my opinion, to learn the human body, you have to get your hands in a body and see it firsthand. Chefs don't learn to cook by looking at pictures of food - they learn it by getting their hands on ingredients. Physical therapy education should be the same. If you expect students to leave school with the equivalent of a mortgage, the very least expectation should be a gross anatomy course - filled with cadavers, dissection and seeing the differences in body types. What happens when computer software anatomy courses are substitutes for a gross cadaver-based lab?

Students need to know the quality of education they will receive from a given DPT program. They need to talk to recent graduates, compare different universities and the courses they offer. Ask the average passing rate of the board exam. Ask how many PTs are employed full-time within three months of graduation. Apply to schools who offer the best quality of education, because you could be paying for that education for the next 30 years of your life.

What do you think? Are computer-based anatomy courses acceptable? Where do you draw the line? What happens when one computer-based course becomes two or three computer-based courses? Do you think the APTA should be responsible for the student debt crises of physical therapists?


I believe that the APTA should take some accountability for this for they are the driving force moving the career to a doctoring profession. It seems that the norm in most career fields is more education equals a higher pay rate, and this is not true in physical therapy. I do not understand why it is optional for those who have been in the career and those who want to get into have no choice. I have the debt similar to a home loan and I am taking responsibility for it. However, I think our profession as a whole should not want to set up new therapists with increasing debt.

Rani, physical therapist February 10, 2013 12:31 PM
phoenix AZ

Excellent point that the DPT should have remained voluntary. The APTA is forcing people into a very expensive career path. Quite possibly this will be a significant detriment to attracting future PTs. The cost is staggering and graduates could remain in debt for many years considering the downward trend in reimbursement and the continued assault on accessibilty by insurance companies. Direct access may not be enough to offset this financial conundrum either. Financially, getting a DPT at this point might be like getting your captain's license while on the Titanic.

Tom, Physical therapist March 14, 2012 4:41 PM

No the APTA should not be responsible for the student debt crisis. It is the personal responsibility of each person to research what they are to take on/able to take on. That is what required volunteer hours for PT school application can provide. If a student is uncertain about a career, then he/she shoud wait & explore more options. The APTA is responsible for pushing their 2020 vision which is short sighted in numerous ways! They do not speak for the majority of PTs and perhaps that's why the membership #'s are so low. As an experienced PT mentoring many volunteers & students over the years, now more than ever, I recommend to them that they research and volunteer in this field first. If the "spark"/"passion" is there, go for it but warn them that it will most likely be costly. I have given the same advice to my own children when they were exploring their own education/career choices. PT should definitely be at the masters level and if the DPT is desired, that should be voluntary....just saying. Good luck in all you do. Sounds like your passion for PT will serve you well in the long run.    BTW... nothing compares to a true anatomy lab vs. computer anatomy lab. The latter is just to save the instituition $.

Jeanne March 8, 2012 9:11 PM

As someone who had the benefit of a cadaver lab for gross anatomy, I must say I can't imagine learning without it for the reasons your describe. It gave me a three dimensional, tactile, and contextually appropriate knowledge base for everything I learned afterward.

I'm not an opponent of computer based learning. It would be an odd statement for someone who is getting a Masters online. However my new degree and future professional development requires no hands on applications in the way that PT does.

In our cadaver lab we got to see and touch and feel tumors, scarred lungs, fat (lots of it!) muscles both fit and atrophied, bones riddled with osteoporosis, and blood vessels constricted to nearly unviable. That can't be replicated with a computer. The seeing part can be replicated, but so much of our work is about what we feel and touch that cadaver lab is not a luxury, but a necessity. It also teaches us to respect the people that have given up their eternal rest for our betterment. It is our first laying on of hands upon people who are most forgiving of our mistakes.

Yes, there are a lot of different programs out there. New physios must choose based upon the value of the education they will receive. But who tells them? Thanks for this well thought out observation.

Dean Metz March 8, 2012 5:11 PM

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