What makes an effective physical therapist? In addition to possessing strong clinical skills, today’s physical therapists must work with patients from a variety of backgrounds, experiences and places to meet each patient’s individual goals. Understanding and respecting cultural differences goes a long way in providing the highest level of care.

In her role as coordinator of the Department of Physical Therapy Education’s Global Learning Opportunities program, Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Education Paula DiBiasio develops community partnerships that provide unique cultural learning experiences for Elon’s Doctor of Physical Therapy students. Through her research, she assesses the effectiveness of the Global Learning Opportunities program and examines differences in curricula in DPT programs nationwide in relation to students’ development of cultural competence.

Developed with support from the Isabella Cannon Global Education Center, the DPT Global Learning Opportunities program offers three types of experiences. Students can participate in clinical rotations in locations that differ from their own cultural environment, working with patients from Belize, Native American populations in Alaska and people in many other locations. Students can also learn about the profession of physical therapy, the overall health care system of international countries and local culture during a non-clinical course in their third year, or participate in a shorter-term experience abroad during their summer clinical internship.

The goal of these programs is to cultivate traits including cultural awareness, sensitivity and humility; civic engagement; and intercultural competence, a characteristic explicitly highlighted as a necessary skill in the American Physical Therapy Association’s vision statement for the physical therapy profession.

Physical therapists work with people from many cultures.  We don’t decide what a patient’s goals are; goals are individual to each patient. As physical therapists, we work with a patient and their family within their cultural context, so understanding and respecting cultural differences allows a PT to assist the patient in meeting their goals in the most effective way.

DiBiasio studies the impact of different variables on the development of intercultural competence in DPT students. Using a standardized assessment of intercultural competence for student health care workers, DiBiasio is measuring the intercultural competence of DPT students at the beginning of their DPT academic experience, before and after a global learning experience and just prior to graduation. If there is a change, she examines the factors that might contribute to that change. For example, does a DPT curriculum alone alter a student’s intercultural competence? Are there factors within the curriculum that have a greater impact on intercultural competence, like a global health course or global learning experiences?  And what particulars within a global learning experience may be more impactful, such as living with a host family, language lessons or the duration of the experience?

Thus far, in comparing a first-year class of Elon DPT students to a graduating class of Elon DPT students, DiBiasio found there is a statistically significant improvement in intercultural competence based on curriculum alone. Within that group of graduates, she also found intercultural competence was significantly higher in those students who completed a global learning experience than in those who did not.

DiBiasio is also exploring the same questions in DPT programs nationwide. To date, 11 universities are participating in the study, and she has already collected data from eight of them. Her work links theory with practice, providing concrete evidence to support the elements of a DPT program that are most likely to impact student intercultural competence in positive ways.

In addition to her research, DiBiasio initiated a national DPT Global Education Consortium and held a Global Education Symposium at Elon in April that addressed how universities can develop and assess programs that are mutually beneficial for the students and the communities in which they complete their global learning experiences.