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New DPT director hits the ground running

One of Dr. Karen Friel’s biggest goals when she took over Wingate’s Department of Physical Therapy earlier this year was to provide students with more opportunities for active learning and leadership.

She’s already making headway in that department.

In late spring, Wingate secured a $12,000 grant from Foundation for a Healthy Carolina. With that money, WU DPT will set up a pro bono community clinic to serve those in need in Anson and Union counties. Wingate DPT students will be doing the bulk of the work.

“Students will be involved the whole way,” Friel says.

It’s been a busy few months for Friel, who chaired the physical-therapy department at the New York Institute of Technology for 14 years, after serving as a faculty member there for six. Wingate and NYIT might seem worlds apart – the latter is situated on Long Island’s Gold Coast, famed for its sprawling mansions owned, or once owned, by America’s wealthiest families. But in many ways Friel’s situation when she took over there in 2004 was similar to the one she has inherited at Wingate, which graduated its third cohort of students in December of 2018.

“The department at the time I think was ready for some new ideas, some different ideas, almost similar to here,” she says. “We’d gotten through our initial accreditation. Things were running fine. But you could tell faculty were a little itchy to make some changes.”

Friel predicts some “major curricular changes” over the next few years, especially after Wingate’s re-accreditation cycle is over in 2021. One change the department is exploring is implementing a combined undergrad/grad program, in which a student could attend three years as an undergraduate at Wingate and then enter the DPT program, similar to the 2+4 program Wingate’s School of Pharmacy employs.

Friel understands that there are pros and cons to the idea.

“It’s great that you can get these people into the profession earlier in their lives,” she says. “It’s great that you’re giving them that automatic acceptance and they’ve committed to you and they’re committed to the institution.” But they’re also a bit younger and potentially less mature. “They are people who have one less year of life experience,” Friel says, “and so there is that maturity factor that comes into play, in their communication and leadership. That’s big. That can be significant.”

One thing she’s not worried about is how prepared they’ll be academically after taking Wingate undergrad courses for three years. From what she’s seen, Wingate biology and exercise-science students who wind up in the DPT program – WU grads usually make up about 10 percent of the class – are more than ready for the rigors of grad school.

No matter the age of the students who enter the program, they’ll get plenty of chances for real-world experience. In addition to the normal clinical rotations, students already participate in a neuro-wellness clinic twice a week and regularly work with a youth dance troupe.

Now the pro bono clinic will provide even greater opportunities, while fulfilling Friel’s desire to give back to the community. At NYIT, there was little need for a community clinic. “The problem is there are not many un- and underinsured on the Gold Coast of Long Island,” Friel says.

Union and Anson counties provide ample opportunity to improve the health of the local community. The neuro-wellness clinic has been heavily used and greatly appreciated, and Friel envisions the pro bono clinic as a more wide-ranging and extensive version of that.

“This would be open for anyone who does not have insurance for PT,” she says. “Could be shoulders, knees, hips, backs. Some wellness. Wellness is a huge push in PT right now, and I think that’s – particularly when we’re talking about Anson and Union counties – where we can have a big influence.”

Running it all will be students, who Friel says will ideally be “go-getters” who are “taking charge of their education.” Students will schedule patients and be “that patient’s advocate and their voice,” Friel says. “We have ideas to get out into the community and do some educational sessions with local organizations. Let them plan that. Let them be a part of it. Let them run those. It gives them the confidence that they can do that.”

Some interesting cases could arise out of the clinic, too. Friel would like the DPT faculty members to think more in terms of research, and the clinic could present opportunities to delve into unique problems and solutions.

“A very wise mentor to me many years ago said, ‘Don’t do anything that you can’t turn into research,’” Friel says.

During her time at NYIT, Friel secured more than $2 million in grants for research and had her work cited nearly 150 times, much of it involving her specialty: high-level amputees. So Friel well understands the value of faculty research.

“It’s a requirement of CAPTE (the accrediting body), so there is that,” Friel says. “But it’s important that they (faculty members) contribute back to the evidence that supports our practice. It’s role-modeling for the students, showing them the importance of evidence-based practice. And it’s hard to preach that if you’re not doing it yourself.”

After a lifetime of studying and working on Long Island, Friel feels rejuvenated in eastern Union County.

“The department’s awesome,” she says. “I am energized by their commitment to the students. I’m energized by their willingness to embrace some new ideas. I’m energized by their outreach. They’re all doing tons of other things to impact the community and impact the Charlotte area. They’re all ready to move forward with curricular design and mission and vision and new ideas.

“I said to a friend back in NY that I’m going to bed every night exhausted but happy.”