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New Air Force physical therapy fellowship to offer “pinnacle of training”

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- A new Air Force Academy fellowship that trains Airmen to be embedded physical therapists recently received accreditation from the American Physical Therapy Association as an Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapy Fellowship, in time for the program’s first students to graduate this summer.
 

The first of its kind in the U.S. military, the Air Force Tactical Sports and Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapy Fellowship is an intensive, mentoring based training program that will increase the number of Air Force physical therapists available to embed in Air Force units worldwide.

“The Air Force began embedding PTs in battlefield Airman squadrons in 2011,” said Dr. Eric Wilson, the fellowship director, and a retired Air Force officer.  “By 2016 there were 16 embedded PTs, supporting units from Air Force Special Operations Command, Air Combat Command, Air Education and Training Command and Joint Special Operations Command.”

Recognizing that there would be an ongoing and increasing need for embedded PTs, the Air Force asked a team led by Wilson to examine courses of action to prepare more PTs with advanced training.

After determining that current military and civilian programs didn’t meet the requirements of embedded Air Force PTs, Wilson and his team began designing a new PT fellowship program.

“Embedded Air Force PTs need training across a broader spectrum than is available in conventional programs,” said Wilson. “We developed a hybrid training platform focused on advanced clinical decision making, orthopedic manual physical therapy, sports physical therapy, human performance optimization, injury prevention, and military acclimation.”

 Wilson said embedded PTs need to develop similar relationships to their units as successful flight surgeons.

“Just being assigned to a battlefield Airman unit doesn’t really mean anything, unless the physical therapist goes out, watches some training, participates when appropriate, and really gains the trust of those Airmen.”

“Being embedded also helps the therapist understand what the end state of a rehab is supposed to be,” said Wilson. “It’s much more difficult to rehab someone carrying 90 pounds of gear versus someone who sits at a desk.”

The U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. provided an excellent venue to develop such a program. With many NCAA Division I student athletes on hand, fellows are able to develop their PT skills on elite athletes, similar to the elite Special Forces operators and other battlefield Airmen they encounter when embedded.

“Most advanced PT education opportunities work with college club sport or high school athletes,” said Wilson. “We are one of the few fellowship programs to actually work with Division I athletes.”

“The rational is they are going to be working with elite level tactical athletes when they are embedded,” continued Wilson. “Whether these are combat controllers, or special operations weather, or para-rescue, or Tactical Air Control Party specialists, these men and women are absolutely the best at what they do, they have got to get back to an elite level of performance. Having our PT fellows practice on Division I athletes and work with the strength and conditioning coaches from the Academy’s athletic department, really sets them up in a way that most other programs don’t.”

The first cohort of fellows began the program in June 2016, with an expected graduation in August 2017. The success in completing the accreditation process means they will graduate from an accredited program. The second cohort of fellows starts in June 2017.

“Getting accredited was our first major hurdle,” said Lt. Col. Joel Dixon, the assistant director for the fellowship. “We are indebted to the 10th Medical Group and the Air Force Academy athletic department. We had no assigned budget or space, and they have gone above and beyond to support us with funds and space. Without both of them, this fellowship never would have succeeded.”

Even with that support, success was by no means assured when Dr. Wilson and his team started. Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapy fellowships have rigorous accreditation standards, with program requirements that include extensive one-on-one mentoring and cover a broader group of topics.

“The fellowship we developed actually features significantly more mentoring hours than required,” said Dixon “The one-on-one mentoring is where the rubber meets the road. You sit in front of a real, live patient, and have to do the technique, with someone there to instruct, critique and later test you in the same setting. That’s where you really learn.”

Dr. Wilson’s team developed the fellowship in a very short time. Curriculum development, program infrastructure, faculty hiring, and the accreditation process all had to happen simultaneously. The program attained provisional accreditation just in time for the first cohort to begin last year.

“This program went from bar napkin to a fully accredited fellowship in 25 months,” said Wilson. “We want the Air Force PT fellowship to be the pinnacle of training, and we think we’re well on the way to accomplishing that.”

“Our entire reason for having embedded PTs is to get those combat mission readiness rates up, to give that commander as many deployable assets as possible,” said Wilson. “It’s the same sports medicine approach used by sports team. If a coach can’t put their best assets on the field, they can’t win. We want our PT fellows to graduate and do the same things for their squadron commanders.”