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Program director responsibilities

Leadership responsibilities & interfaces for academic physical therapy program chairs

The academic chair in physical therapy is the institutional “face” of the profession whose leadership must inspire excellence and the type(s) of creativity and innovation that contribute to an upward trajectory of health and health care.  The chair is responsible for:

  • oversight of all academic activities in teaching,
  • research and clinical care,
  • management of business and financial functions, and
  • the regular conduct of visionary and effective strategic planning.

These responsibilities carry an obligation for action at many levels and involve interface with multiple communities, both inside and external to the host institution.  The academic chair must be wary of professional insularity, proactive about educational reform and genuinely committed to inter-professional partnership.

Although there are inherent variations in institutional culture that affect how these responsibilities are accomplished, the diagram below depicts the major interfaces each leader is responsible for cultivating to ensure the comprehensive and excellent conduct of academic leadership in physical therapy. 

Physical Therapy Program Chair Responsibilities & Interfaces

Institutional interfaces

Each academic leader is accountable to multiple levels and missions of the host institution. Specific to the department, administrative and management demands are inherent for:

  • effective strategic planning (often including space design),
  • budget oversight,
  • faculty recruitment and mentoring,
  • staff development and
  • student recruitment.

Activities in these areas occur concurrently with the individual responsibility to teach, conduct research and, in many circumstances, provide direct clinical care. Always in the foreground are obligations to prepare for specialized (CAPTE) accreditation or institutionally-required external program reviews. 

As a member of the wider academic community, the chair is accountable to higher administration (e.g. Chancellor, Dean, Provost/Vice President Academic Affairs), and thus to institutional processes such as:

  • assessment of institutional effectiveness,
  • regional accreditation,
  • institutional planning,
  • cultivation of alumni and other donors, and
  • response to the institutional trustees and/or board of regents.

Participation in university governance (e.g. Faculty Senate, search processes, promotions committees) also is an expectation that assures physical therapy is regarded as an integral component of the university culture and community.

If the department has a clinical practice, the chair also is responsible for practice management, including recruitment, supervision, and financial oversight of this mission of academic work.  Regardless of the size of the clinical mission, the academic chair must be active in creating and maintaining a vibrant interface with surrounding health systems as part of the obligation to provide effective clinical education, be involved in public service and serve as an advocate for a contemporary view of physical therapy as an essential component of the health care system.

Profession-wide interfaces

Beyond involvement at the institutional level, the academic chair must engage in multiple professional activities that assure understanding of the dynamics of higher education and health care that drive or support change in physical therapy education.

  • High-level knowledge of the nature of accreditation standards,
  • Effectiveness of new practice paradigms,
  • Emergence and impact of specialties and sub-specialties, and
  • Response to the current health shifts and profiles in society are all obligations of the academic chair and all affect the design of curriculum, research programs and clinical outlets.

ACAPT membership is critical as it enables the chair to build professional networks, access current perspectives and participate in advocacy for physical therapy to be seated at tables of influence in education, practice and research.

Membership in other professional societies related to the individual’s academic interests or the institution’s strategic needs builds inter-professional linkages that are essential for full academic and professional excellence. Active participation in such professional association(s) also demonstrates to faculty, students and academic colleagues the importance of volunteerism in a profession that embraces caring and altruism as expectations.

Although each chair will build unique interfaces, at a minimum intra-professional relationships are critical to effective leadership in academic physical therapy and should span the APTA, sections, chapters and other components engaged in the growth and development of the discipline.

Community interfaces

Through service, education and collaboration in the community at large, the academic chair must build interfaces that further the influence of the profession. Opportunities abound for interaction with:

  1. Potential applicants and their families to demonstrate the value of a career in physical therapy.
  2. Consumers to teach the importance of movement for health and the effectiveness of physical therapy to address pain and functional compromise.
  3. Practitioners whose partnership is critical for clinical education.
  4. Other educational institutions with congruent missions for research, service and education.

Although an exhaustive list of community opportunities is beyond the scope of this document, options may include:

  • provision of local or international pro bono service,
  • interaction with career development professionals at undergraduate institutions,
  • mentorship of clinical leaders to participate in didactic teaching and/or clinical research, and
  • creation of inter-institutional research initiatives that further the search for knowledge in the movement and behavioral sciences that underpin the profession.

Viewed broadly, the community interface creates a “real world” laboratory through which clinical care can be seated in its cultural context, education can prepare practitioners to build interdisciplinary models that use best evidence relevant to that culture, and research can be directed toward questions of importance to the health of society. It is the obligation of each academic chair in physical therapy to nourish the community interface.

Regulatory interfaces

Advocacy, both within and external to the academic home, is a critical skill for the chair. To effect the regulatory interface, the chair must communicate clearly, negotiate effectively, and understand the accountabilities demanded by government and its representatives. Among other obligations, this interface requires:

  1. Communication with licensure and certification boards at the state and professional level to assure that graduates will be eligible for licensure.
  2. Active involvement in developing legislative action related to the provision of care and the role of physical therapists in the care system.
  3. Continuous monitoring of standards for accreditation and advocacy for those standards to be used as a vehicle for excellence rather than a recognition of minimal acceptable performance.
  4. Contact with insurance representatives and payers to reinforce the current scope of physical therapy, its value and the potential from PT intervention for a return on investment of health care dollars.

Involvement in this interface requires attention to institutional priorities and advocacy directions, legislative and political dynamics, professional association activities and emerging trends in health and health care that signal the need for health policy to be changed or revitalized. 

Taken together, the four interfaces described above comprise a snapshot of roles and responsibilities of the physical therapy program chair at an academic institution. ACAPT is poised to reinforce the importance of these responsibilities, to spur leadership development toward full expression of these myriad roles and to be a full partner with related organizations to achieve the shared vision to “transform society by optimizing movement to improve the human experience”.


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