St. George has a lot going for it, from beautiful desert scenery to multitudes of outdoor activities. And it’s about to have another good thing: a satellite Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program that’s an extension of the one at University of Utah College of Health. It’s the College’s first satellite clinical professional training program, scheduled to start in summer 2022.
For the past five years, the University has been working with Dixie State/Utah Tech University (Utah Tech) to bring more health sciences offerings to Southern Utah. After the state legislature approved funding and directed the two schools to work together, Scott Ward, former chair of the physical therapy and athletic training department, headed a lengthy project to make this idea a reality. Utah Tech had demonstrated an interest in physical therapy education, and Ward and his team worked with various regulatory and accreditation bodies to prepare to launch the new program.
“All of those logistics of drafting how we would do this, getting the approval and then working on the agreements, hiring people, it’s common for it to take at least five years to do it well,” Ward said. “We have our faculty and staff hired down there, and we’ve admitted a class of students to start this summer. We recently held an open house in St. George with a few of the new students that were local. It was fun to see how excited they are about the program getting started essentially in their own backyard.”
St. George’s DPT students will also have an on-site program director, Catherine Ortega. She served in a similar position at UT San Antonio and fell in love with Utah after a lengthy road trip across the national parks. Both Ortega and Ward hope that the new program will provide more opportunities for rural students, but also members of indigenous populations and other diverse communities. Since her hire, Ortega has been directly involved in outreach to these populations across Southern Utah.
“Our goal is to try to make connections and expand care to rural communities,” she said. “We had a good week with the Utah Rural Scholars Program and had a chance to learn about the Navajo Nation and the Navajo health care system. If we can help prepare our students to work in the rural areas of Utah, we prepare them to work globally.”
The DPT Program at Utah Tech is a synchronous offering, meaning it’s a University of Utah program in St. George. The students will be University of Utah students and receive their degrees from the U. Even though the two classrooms are over 300 miles apart, technology will ensure that students and faculty in Salt Lake City and St. George stay connected.
Ward said that lectures can originate from either campus and be livestreamed to the other location, so the teaching faculty will be able to see the rest of the class on a screen. Students joining remotely will have microphones to ask questions, so both classes will be learning exactly at the same time. And faculty will travel on occasion between the two locations, getting to know students in person regardless of where they attend.
“When we have the lab sessions, the initial instructions might come from Salt Lake City, but we’ll be demonstrating in the labs in St. George,” Ortega said. “We’ve already hired local clinical instructors like what we have in Salt Lake City. That’s another way we’re empowering the community—bringing in people from St. George to contribute to educating the next generation of health care providers. It’s kind of a reciprocal relationship: students going out and clinicians coming in.”
The program has admitted 18 students to start this summer, with plans to expand to 24 by year three. That increases the number of students currently in the DPT program to more than 70, with one-third in the St. George program. Thanks to the efforts of Ward, Ortega and others, the College of Health’s mission to transform health care will reach more people than ever.
“It’s really exciting because we’re able to extend our reach, extend the university’s brand and serve the state better,” Ward said.