Harsimran Baweja is the inaugural director of Auburn's Doctor of Physical Therapy program.
Due to a shortage of providers, physical therapy is inaccessible for many Alabama residents who need it, but the husband-and-wife team of Harsimran Baweja and Niyati Shah are dedicated to changing that in the coming years.
The state of Alabama only has approximately 30 licensed, practicing physical therapists per 100,000 residents. As the inaugural director of the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program in Auburn University’s School of Kinesiology, Baweja is looking forward to adding physical therapists to the state’s workforce.
“Currently, the state of Alabama graduates 162 physical therapists from its five programs,” he said. “Once Auburn’s program is in full swing, the state will graduate 200 per year. We are looking forward to adding licensed physical therapists to support our Alabama residents, our military and more, while also creating a workforce of diverse physical therapists, and we are eager to work with the existing DPT programs in the state to advance the field of physical therapy.”
Baweja comes to Auburn from San Diego State University, where he served as an associate professor in the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences’ Doctor of Physical Therapy Program since 2014. He’s been a physical therapist for more than 18 years with a specialization in acute care and inpatient rehabilitation, particularly in the ICU and post-surgical units.
As a clinical neuroscientist, Baweja directs the Sensorimotor and Rehabilitation Technology (SMaRT) Neuroscience Lab in the School of Kinesiology. His research aims at understanding the neural mechanisms underlying movement control and learning across the lifespan and in persons with movement disorders arising from nervous system pathologies. He then uses those discoveries to create innovative and meaningful interventions and rehabilitation paradigms.
Shah is an assistant clinical professor and the inaugural director of clinical education for the DPT program. A practicing physical therapist for more than 18 years, she specializes in cardiopulmonary physical therapy in sub-acute care and geriatric rehabilitation. She's passionate about reducing rural health care disparities and a champion for women's pelvic health.
Shah served as the director of rehabilitation of a 99-bed, sub-acute care facility in San Diego for eight years prior to assuming her role at Auburn. She helped set up quarantine rehabilitation units during the COVID-19 pandemic and spearheaded the rehabilitation protocols in this dynamically evolving arena.
Niyati Shah is the inaugural director of clinical education for Auburn's new Doctor of Physical Therapy program.
“Physical therapists play an important role in promoting health and wellness, preventing disease and injury and restoring function and mobility across the lifespan,” Shah said. “Our graduates will be prepared to work collaboratively with health care teams, engage in lifelong learning to provide high-quality care and contribute to the advancement of the profession.”
Auburn’s DPT program is in the accreditation phase with the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education, and the first class of students is expected to arrive on campus in the summer of 2025. Well ahead of the arrival of the first class of students, Shah is meeting with local physical therapy clinics to establish partnerships that will bolster the state as a frontrunner in physical therapy treatment and education and collaborations to advance science.
“As we prepare to welcome physical therapy students to Auburn, part of our mission is to develop a program that will foster critical thinking, clinical reasoning and problem-solving skills,” said Shah. “We will achieve this through hands-on experiences in diverse clinical and research settings, particularly those that serve under-resourced communities.”
One community that Baweja specifically wants to bolster is the military, as the Department of Defense is looking to increase the number of active-duty physical therapists in the armed forces. This comes after a study found that seeing a physical therapist for primary care was associated with an estimated $3.6 million in reduced utilization costs, lower rates of referral to specialty care and decreased rates of long-term disability. The American Physical Therapy Association is advocating for that change, too.
The hiring of additional faculty is critical to achieving all the goals set for the DPT program.
“We are in the process of hiring several high-end clinician scientists with dual degrees and board certifications in physical therapy specialties, as well as doctorates who will enhance the mission of the school and enrich our research portfolio,” said Mary Rudisill, director of the School of Kinesiology. “We are adding three more research laboratories with our new incoming DPT faculty members. Ultimately, we will be performing research addressing clinical issues and interventions that impact how we provide physical therapy services.”
Auburn’s DPT program also will include a teaching clinic located in the Kinesiology Building, which will provide students with experiential learning to sharpen graduates’ psychometric skills in physical therapy. Rudisill said the teaching clinic will offer hands-on training for students with cutting-edge technology and equipment to prepare them for their careers.
“It is imperative to us that we are educating future physical therapists but also contributing knowledge and research to the field of physical therapy,” she said.
Baweja said he is leaning heavily on Auburn’s land-grant mission as he develops the DPT program.
“We want to cultivate a community that is dedicated to enhancing the practice of physical therapy through innovations in education, research, outreach and advocacy,” he said. “We can do this by preparing clinical physical therapists who are equipped with the knowledge, skills and values needed to provide exceptional patient-centered care and contribute to the advancement of the physical therapy profession.”