Creating Pipelines to Advance DEI
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes
The following thoughts are my own personal opinions. Like everyone else I view the world through a unique perception formed by my past experiences, opportunities, and exposures.
Differing views, backgrounds, and beliefs are essential to the optimal forward progression of humanity, and rather than creating weakness and strife, our differences should be our foundation. I truly believe that our differences make us stronger.
Although there is obviously room for growth, it's been great to see soaring interest and passion regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) advancement efforts within our profession over the past few years.
With these advancements it should be made clear that racial disparities are still a huge problem, markedly present in academia, the clinical world, and everyday life, and DEI advancement is a gigantic topic, continuously moving and growing. A great deal of people have hearts for DEI expansion, but it's easy to get intimidated when considering where to start or where you fit in this great puzzle.
When I started physical therapy school I was surprised to find out that my class of 64 students had approximately 5 students who were not Caucasian. This trend was similarly reflected in the class before me and the class before that.
This is by no means saying that I believe my school is biased or employs negative discrimination toward students in a minority population during the application review process. But clearly something is going on, right?
Literature has consistently shown that patient outcomes are significantly improved when provider demographics are more reflective of the surrounding community demographics, but if the United States population is roughly composed of a 60:40 Caucasian to minority population ratio, why isn't the physical therapy profession similarly reflective?
The problem isn't that admissions boards are corrupt, or biased, or that current physical therapists (PTs) don't want to see the profession's diversity grow, the problem is that we aren't getting to students early enough.
Think about when you were a child and would tell others what you wanted to be when you grew up; did you ever hear anyone say a PT? What about in middle school or high school?
As much as DEI needs to advance, there is a slippery slope between providing needed assistance for students of a minority population and putting students who are not of a minority population at a wrongful disadvantage.
No one should be placed in or rejected from a program based solely on their demographic makeup. But we need to bring in talented and deserving students of minority populations to the profession to help it progress academically, clinically, and culturally.
Thankfully, there are bright, young, and eager students in minority populations out there, but many don't know where to start or what it takes to make it into the physical therapy profession. For many they are the first ones in their families to have a college degree, let alone to pursue a doctorate degree.
Just applying to physical therapy school is one of the toughest parts of the whole process, and it can be exceptionally daunting if you feel like you're figuring it out on your own with few to no mentors or resources. There is clearly a gap between these bright young students and admission into physical therapy school.
As a first-year student I joined with 3 second-year physical therapy students to see if we could begin to bridge that gap.
Over the course of a year we established the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) Creating Opportunity & Academic Success for Tomorrow's Therapist (COAST). This is a pipeline program geared toward high school and college students in minority populations. The goal of the program is to first provide mentorship to students who are interested in the physical therapy profession.
The idea is that students at this point in their academic career likely have ample time to achieve a competitive GPA before applying to physical therapy school. We aim to pair prospective students with current physical therapy students and/or clinicians of minority populations in the field with the goal of being a resource regarding admissions, practice settings, shadowing hours, study habits, and even just everyday life questions like where to get a haircut.
The second component is what we call a physical therapy exploration program (PEP) day, where MUSC hosts potential high school and college students on its campus for a day, doing communication and team-building activities, a university tour, clinic observations and tours, current physical therapy student interactive panels, and faculty minority alumni interactive panels. After receiving some productive and positive feedback this program continues to thrive, and we'll be hosting our third annual PEP event in August 2019.
We are still too early in our process to determine whether we are making significant differences, but our vision is that we are providing gifted students in minority populations with the tools they need to be successful in physical therapy school and beyond.
Our program still has a lot of room for growth and exposure, but programs like these can have the potential to change the landscape of not only the classroom, but also the profession for the better.
Over the development and maintenance of the pipeline program it has been truly amazing to see how willing and motivated faculty, staff, and clinicians are to help make a difference. So many people want to help and even more want to be helped.
Whether you're a clinician, a student, or a faculty member it's up to us to start bridging the gaps within our profession, but we can't stop there.
I once asked Antonn Gunn (MUSC's chief diversity officer) what the biggest challenge to continuing efforts in DEI is. He told me that advancing DEI is like climbing a greased up fire pole: the moment you stop climbing, you start sliding down.
We can't rest on just getting students of minority populations into physical therapy school, but we have to make sure that we are continuing to provide tailored mentorship and accountability throughout education and into the clinic. We have to keep pushing despite success.
I've seen a few articles lately on implicit bias, and while I won't get into that can of worms in this post, this is one of our most significant glaring obstacles. If we truly want to excel DEI efforts we have to continually evaluate and scrutinize ourselves.
I'll sign off with a quote I got from a TED talk featuring Verna Myers who said: "Diversity is like being invited to the party, inclusion is being invited to dance." So for goodness sake, get out there and dance!
APTA is committed to fostering a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion within our community. This is a journeyóand that journey needs your perspective and support. If you have ideas to increase diversity and promote equity and inclusion, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Spencer Baron, PT, DPT, is a #FreshPT and one of the founders of MUSC's COAST program. You can connect with Spencer on Twitter at @Spenc247.