Physical Therapy Gait and Motion Analysis lab
Burke Gurney, PhD, PT (right) demonstrates the use of motion capture technology at the UNM Center for Gait and Motion Analysis.

When Barbara Bradley Fuller graduated from the UNM Physical Therapy program in 1976 she was one of three members of the fledgling program’s first class. In the 40 years since, the program has educated more than 700 physical therapists, 75 percent of whom practice in New Mexico.

“It’s been a very rewarding career helping patients resume their lives after injury,” Fuller says. “You meet the patient where they are at, work with them to understand and use their body in a different way — and, in the process, you learn about their families and develop a relationship that is life-long.”

The physical therapy program was launched with funding from a Federal Allied Health Manpower Training grant in 1974. The U.S. economy was gripped by recession and unemployment was reaching 9 percent, yet the need for physical therapists was increasing.

New Mexico had the lowest number of physical therapists per hospital beds in Western states. The recommended ratio was one therapist per 20 beds, and New Mexico averaged one per 142 beds. It was clear the growing physical therapy needs could not be met without an in-state educational program.

The program was launched within the Department of Orthopaedics with a few core faculty members: Don Owens, founding program director Elizabeth Barnett and William O’Brien, the architect behind the program’s curriculum and the second program director.

George Omer, MD, chair of Orthopaedics and the chief of the Physical Medicine service at Bernalillo County Medical Center, saw the physical therapy program as necessary not only to address the clinical need in the state, but as an essential building block in developing a comprehensive medical school. 

Early on, the program took an interdisciplinary approach, collaborating with physicians to teach the medical aspects of the curriculum and contributing those portions relating directly to physical therapy. This provided better integration of both medical and physical therapy content.

The program has come a long way since its early days, mirroring changes in the profession’s entry-level requirements. It transitioned from offering a bachelor of science to a master of physical therapy degree in 2000 and switched to a three-year doctor of physical therapy degree in 2009.

The main impetus behind this rapid progression is the more rigorous preparation students now need to master a growing body of knowledge. The curriculum has expanded in the areas of gender health, differential diagnosis, imaging, pharmacology and cultural aspects of patient care.

The profession took a huge leap forward in 2015 when the New Mexico Legislature approved a provision allowing patients direct access to physical therapy.

“This represents a paradigm shift in our practice,” says the program’s current director, Burke Gurney, PhD.

“In essence we are moving away from what has been historically a prescription-based model,” he says. “Patients can benefit from quicker interventions, quicker results, and as studies suggest, at a lower cost to the system.”

UNM’s program is uniquely service oriented and requires students to provide 48 hours of physical therapy services in the community.

“While that does not sound like much,” Gurney says, “it teaches students valuable lessons while making a real difference to patients who are under-insured and unable to pay.”

Another advance was the establishment of the Fred Rutan Center for Gait and Motion Analysis in 2012. The lab was named in honor of the program director from 1985-1988, and provides the much-needed infrastructure for the program’s research projects.

Gurney, along with Ron Andrews, PhD, associate professor and previous program director, are hopeful that sometime in the near future UNM will be able to offer a PhD track focusing on research specific to physical therapy.

Meanwhile, UNM’s Physical Therapy program has proved vital to improving the health of New Mexicans. “We still place 100 percent of our graduates, and most choose to practice in the state,” Gurney says. 

Physical therapists have remained over the years the quintessential “hands-on” members of the health care team, focusing on quality of life for the individual patient, Gurney says, adding, “There’s an old saying: medical doctors add years to your life and physical therapists add life to your years.”