Whitworth finalizes its first Doctorate programs 

By Grace Uppendahl | News Writer

The new Dornsife Health Sciences building will house the graduate programs in physical and occupational therapy. | Hannah Loesch/ The Whitworthian

As of the 2022-2023 school year, Whitworth will be offering two new graduate programs: Doctor of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy Doctorate. These will be the first doctoral programs to be offered in all of Whitworth’s history. 

The Pacific Northwest has an alarmingly low number of physical and occupational doctorate programs. Mike Ediger, the Interim Associate Dean of Health Sciences, is the driving force behind these programs. “There were only about 5 percent of the seats for the total number of therapy students applying to Physical Therapy (PT) and Occupational Therapy (OT) schools, meaning 95% of the students that were applying to our regional PT and OT schools had to go somewhere else,” Ediger said in an interview.  

Additionally, Ediger said, “PT and OT jobs are expected to grow by about 30% over the next decade in our region,” making now an ideal time to start these new programs. 

Ediger has been working at Whitworth for 22 years, starting as a professor before moving to creating the health science undergraduate program and finally becoming Interim Associate Dean of Health Sciences. Ediger said, “I created the undergraduate Health Science Department in… 2008. It was a part of the original vision to grow into a school of health sciences… meaning undergraduate and graduate degrees.” 

In 2016, Ediger and his team were asked by the School of Continuing Studies to assess whether they should start a physical therapy graduate program. After looking over the possibility to create this program, then looking at the opportunity given, Ediger and Jonathan Hook, an assistant professor in physical therapy at Whitworth, decided a doctoral program would be better than a graduate program.  

“I made the formal proposal [for a doctorate program] in 2017 and then…we just spent a full year researching what it’s really going to take,” Ediger says. He and his team researched several different programs, but ultimately decided that occupational and physical therapy doctorate programs would be joining the new graduate athletic training program.  

Once the programs were formally chosen, Ediger hired Carrie Hawkins to be the doctor of physical therapy program director and Greg Wintz to be the occupational therapy program director. Both Hawkins and Wintz began work on the projects after hiring.  

From there, Hawkins and Wintz hired a team of people to help head the programs, with some hires to head OT, and others to head PT. 

Loriann Helgeson, Academic Field Work Coordinator of the Occupational Therapy Doctorate (OTD), was hired in January 2021 to find all the possible clinical placements for each OTD student. The clinical placements allow students to get hands-on experience in the field.  

Helgeson said, “We have spots all the way on the east coast; I also have some in Texas, Alaska, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia.”  This diversity of clinical placements gives students opportunities to travel within their field.  

Additionally, Paul Werhane, a Whitworth alum and an assistant professor in the Doctorate of Physical Therapy program, has joined the PT team. Werhane has been a physical therapist for the last eight years at Sacred Heart Hospital in Spokane.  

In January of 2021, Werhane was approached by Hawkins and Hook who encouraged him to apply. Once he entered the application process, Werhane said, “I felt really strongly that… this was the next step for me to do.” 

Werhane is excited to be back on campus, saying, “It’s like coming home in a lot of ways.” 

Both Ediger and Werhane expect that this is just the beginning and that the program will grow in exponential ways, one day maybe even doing international trips. 

The Whitworth University press release is available here to find out more information about the new programs. 

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