New DPT program gets under way

Students in WCU’s physical therapy program practice the application of electrotherapy.

Western Carolina University’s second doctoral-level academic program got under way this fall semester when 32 students began course work toward receiving their doctor of physical therapy degree.

A total of 386 prospective students applied for the 32 slots available to start the program this semester, said Karen Lunnen, head of WCU’s physical therapy department. The other students on WCU’s campus working toward doctoral degrees are taking classes to earn their doctor of education degree in educational leadership.

The University of North Carolina Board of Governors gave its permission in April 2010 for WCU to expand its master’s degree program in physical therapy to a doctoral program to allow the program to meet long-term goals of the American Physical Therapy Association and to comply with accreditation standards, Lunnen said.

WCU’s physical therapy program was originally developed to help the state’s rural western counties deal with a shortage of physical therapists. “Our goal of helping to address manpower shortages in the region, along with the program’s commitment to service-learning and integration of engaged learning opportunities throughout the curriculum, aligns our program with the mandates of UNC Tomorrow, the UNC system’s 20-year strategic plan,” Lunnen said.

Students enrolling in the DPT program must already possess a bachelor’s degree, but the degree doesn’t necessarily have to be in a health-related field. “We have a broad range of educational and work experience represented in this first group of doctoral students,” Lunnen said.

Students in the DPT program must already have completed prerequisite courses such as human anatomy and physiology, chemistry, physics, statistics and related courses in the social sciences. With the move to a doctoral-level program, the curriculum has been expanded from 24 months to 33 months, and the clinical education component of the program has increased from 26 weeks to 34 weeks. “With more time allocated to the program, we have been able to expand the breadth of existing courses and add new courses that will better prepare students for their roles in an increasingly challenging health care environment,” Lunnen said.

As the DPT begins at WCU, construction on the university’s new Health and Human Sciences Building is entering its final phases. The four-story, $46 million building is the first structure on 344 acres WCU acquired across N.C. 107 from the main campus as part of the Millennial Initiative. WCU’s physical therapy program and other programs of the College of Health and Human Sciences that are currently located across four buildings will relocate to the new facility when it opens.

Space is now cramped in WCU’s Moore Building when students in the physical therapy program need to practice hands-on skills, but the new building will have spacious laboratories and many more areas for collaborative study and practice, Lunnen said.

“The first floor of the new building will have a fully staffed physical therapy clinic where students will have opportunities for supervised clinical experience as an integrated part of the curriculum,” she said. “The potential to collaborate with other disciplines and community partners to provide needed health care services to the region and to involve students in the planning and delivery of those services is the most exciting aspect of the new building to me.”

The new facility also will house WCU’s Human Movement Science Laboratory, which is currently located in the Center for Applied Technology, and a new Balance and Fall Prevention Center.

WCU’s master’s degree program in physical therapy graduated its first class in 1998, and students currently in that program who graduate with a master’s degree will be eligible to take the National Physical Therapy Examination and be licensed to practice physical therapy, Lunnen said. “The job market continues to be strong, and typically 100 percent of our graduates are able to find employment, many in Western North Carolina,” she said.

For more information about the doctor of physical therapy program, contact Lunnen at 828-227-2191 or

The new Health and Human Sciences Building is entering the final phases of construction.