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Fifty Years of Physical Therapy at the UND SMHS
From a conference room on the third floor of the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), Tom Mohr, PT, Ph.D., pauses, searching his mind for the best way of explaining what it is that makes UND’s Physical Therapy (PT) Program special. After pondering for a moment, Mohr leans forward in his seat. “I remember a few years ago. Someone came over from another department across campus, and I said something like, ‘I’ve got 152 students to worry about …’ And the person said, ‘What? You worry about students?’ I just said, ‘Yes. I worry about every one of my students.’ We’re sending students out to work closely with some seriously ill patients, so we want them to be competent and prepared for the world they’re entering. We do worry about them doing a good job and being safe.”
Smiling at his colleague’s comments, Dave Relling, PT, Ph.D., did not hesitate to agree. “That’s just part of the culture of the Physical Therapy Program at UND, and it’s always been that way. There’s always been a connection between faculty and students, and there’s always been an aspect of care between them,” says Relling, who in 2014 took over for Mohr to become only the third chair of the Department of Physical Therapy since it was founded in 1967. “We’re heavily invested in each one of these students and want to see them succeed, and that just draws us together. That’s something that I see as consistent from the time I was an undergraduate here to now.”
Fifty years of UND SMHS Physical Therapy Department program chairs.
From Left to Right: Henry "Bud" Wessman, Tom Mohr, and Dave Relling
UND’s Department of Physical Therapy celebrates 50 years of family this year. And to hear Relling and Mohr tell it, despite major changes over the decades in the program’s curriculum, degree offerings, physical space, and teaching, the program continues to be an open, welcoming, and supportive place that feels like home to many students.
Mohr and Relling agree that this culture of care all started with one man; as Mohr quips, “I think we can trace that back to Bud—Bud cared about everybody.”
“It was like a family. We didn’t let anybody fail,” explains the Bud in question—Henry “Bud” Wessman, MS, PT, J.D.—from his home in Fargo, N.D. “Once we had our cadre of students each year, we shifted our focus from the students working hard to get into the program to the faculty working hard to keep these kids. In the 26 years I was there, we only lost two or three students.”
So it has been ever since.
Before he earned his Juris Doctor degree, became mayor of Grand Forks, and went on to work for the Department of Health and Human Services in Baltimore, Wessman helped establish, almost single-handedly, the Physical Therapy Program at UND’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences in 1967. After he was recruited away from his teaching position at the University of Minnesota, Wessman and only one other full-time faculty member accepted their first class of nine students (out of 26 applicants) in 1968—even before securing accreditation for the program from the American Medical Association and American Physical Therapy Association in 1969.
As Bud remembers those early years, physical therapy was a fledgling discipline. So it was that when a brand new program began at UND, Wessman and his colleagues could not help but appreciate and respect the students who were diving head-first into a program without a past and whose future was uncertain. “You talk about faith—those students came in without any guarantee that the program would even be accredited,” Wessman recalled. “And the irony is you had to have students going through the program before you can get accredited. So that first group had an almost missionary zeal about them—they just wanted to succeed and help others.”
Under the leadership of Wessman, Mohr, and Relling, UND’s Physical Therapy Program has evolved from offering a Bachelor of Science degree in physical therapy (BSPT) to offering a master’s degree (MPT) in 1993 and doctorate (DPT)—the field’s entry-level degree today—in 2006. That pilot group of nine graduates from 1969 has evolved into a graduating class that hovers around 50 each spring, which often represents 100 percent of a given class.
For Wessman’s fellow chairs, it is this push to continue to improve the patient experience while simultaneously supporting young professionals that allows the PT program both
to adapt to the needs of a changing healthcare system nationally and an aging
client base locally.
Calling the healthcare
system more multifaceted and nuanced than when he was training, Relling notes that the teaching of therapists has had to develop as not only patients but also the healthcare system changed. “If you look at medical practice now, it’s very complex. As such, our education has to be much more complex and professional,” says Relling. “No longer does a person just need therapy for a total knee [surgery], but it’s a total knee or hip and they might have diabetes, obesity, or high blood pressure, which makes that person’s care that much more challenging.”
This is where UND’s new School of Medicine and Health Sciences building comes in. According to Relling, the combination of the biomedical, therapeutic, research, and public health programs into one integrated space has already improved the student experience, a benefit that in time will filter down to these students’ patients. “Our students get more interaction with other health professionals—not only in our interprofessional healthcare course but in the learning communities, in the hallways, changing out of classrooms where people of different disciplines can bump into each other,” he says. “The new facility is changing the way we teach in that we’re more active; faculty are incorporating small-group learning, and students are learning how to search for information in the literature online during class, whereas in the past they might have done that after class.”
Not only that, adds Mohr, but students are learning that their treatment regimens must be evidence-based, both because provider reimbursement increasingly depends on evidence of a treatment’s efficacy, and students are demanding that type of research-oriented learning. “That’s one of the big, big things in the shift of how we teach—helping students learn how to access the literature and use evidence and practice based on the evidence,” Mohr continues. “When I got my degree, there were very few texts dedicated to PT—there were maybe seven books, and that was the whole curriculum. Now there are hundreds of books on physical therapy, and dozens of journals. Students today want to know how to access the latest research in the field in real time.”
As the next half-century unfolds, Wessman, Mohr, and Relling all expect UND Physical Therapy to continue to be the place it was at its founding: a supportive, caring, and dynamic place full of engaged faculty and students who take an interest in each other’s well-being.
“People that go into physical therapy want a human connection,” says Relling, summarizing his years as a student and chair at UND’s Physical Therapy Program. “Patients are seeing therapists multiple times a week, maybe for weeks. And each treatment session can last 30 minutes or more. That’s why I’ve always seen PT as a very giving profession.”
Wessman could not agree more. “Well, it’s no accident that when I was chair we fought to get our graduates to come back and teach. We knew what quality people they were,” he concludes. “Our Administrative Assistant Alyson White has been there 42 years. You don’t get that kind of longevity unless you have people who are highly dedicated and are there because they want to be. And that’s what it’s all about—wanting to serve and creating a place where people want to be.”