Let's Develop a New Generation of Black Physical Therapy Leaders

As Black History Month comes to a close, we want to take time to recognize and celebrate the central role Black physical therapists have had in our profession. The contributions of Black physical therapists to the advancement of the profession and rehabilitation services cannot be taken for granted. During this time, we look to individuals such as Bessie Blount Griffin, Thelma Brown Pendleton, PT, and Vilma Evans, PT, EdD who were some of the first few Black physical therapists of the mid-1900’s. These women had to bear the burden of being pioneers within the field and challenging the status quo while facing systemic racism at every turn. The sacrifices made by these individuals and others like them have created avenues for Black physical therapists and other physical therapists of color to become leaders in the field, whether that be as physical therapy directors, program leaders, or APTA officers.

Black History Month is not just about celebrating our past. It is also essential that we look at the current state of physical therapy and work to invest in the future of the profession by cultivating a new generation of leaders.

It is essential that we look at the current state of physical therapy and work to invest in the future of the profession by cultivating a new generation of leaders.

Monica Nolte, DPTc and Ashley Omwanghe, DPTc

UCSF Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation

As of 2022, the physical therapy workforce is more racially and ethnically diverse than ever before, however when compared to the diversity in the nation as a whole, racial and ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented within the profession. This poses a critical problem for quality of care among minority communities, because when compared to white counterparts, minority patients are less likely to receive outpatient physical therapy services, tend to have worse health outcomes, and are less likely to have positive functional outcomes when they do access therapy. We see time and time again that by culturally matching patients and clinicians, there tends to be higher patient involvement in care, higher levels of patient satisfaction, and better health outcomes overall.

To be able to provide the best physical therapy care for our patients, there needs to be greater effort put towards recruiting students of color into physical therapy programs and ensuring retention of those students throughout the program. We believe that increasing the proportion of minority physical therapists through greater enrollment of minority students is an essential step to mitigating health disparities experienced by minority individuals. This belief sparked our research on Factors that Promote Higher Percentages of Under-represented Minority Students in Entry-Level Physical Therapy Programs.

Our research provided evidence which demonstrated that presence of faculty of color and purposeful recruitment and retention strategies are successful in increasing diversity within physical therapy education cohorts. Increased hiring of faculty of color has been shown to increase diversity, as these individuals serve as role models and culturally sensitive advisors for minority students. While implementation of recruitment and retention strategies geared towards minority students increases diversity by properly equipping students with valuable information about the profession and guidance through the application process. These evidence-based strategies can be employed by institutions nationwide to help combat inequality and social exclusion faced by minority individuals who may be interested in pursuing a career within physical therapy.

We hope that physical therapy faculty and program leaders will read this and understand that there are concrete and effective steps that can be taken to increase diversity in physical therapy programs. This problem has been ongoing since the inception of our profession, and positive change will not be made until leaders come together and prioritize a more racially diverse workforce. We cannot continue to wait for others to start the work, it is the responsibility of each of us to engage in this work together.