The University of Delaware’s Physical Therapy Department partners with health facilities all over the country. But when it came time to recognize an organization that has made an outstanding, sustained contribution to the program’s clinical education component, the school recognized one of its nearest neighbors — Christiana Care Health System.

Sharon Kurfuerst, EdD, OTR/L, FACHE
Sharon Kurfuerst, EdD, OTR/L, FACHE

At the winter commencement on Jan. 9, Sharon Kurfuerst, Ed.D., OTR/L, FACHE, FAOTA, FABC, senior vice president for Health Services Operations, accepted the Catherine Doetzer Kohlenstein Clinical Educator’s Award on behalf of Christiana Care Rehabilitation Services.

“They are a very reputable PT program, and they have a number of clinical affiliations, so to be recognized in this way is significant.” Kurfuerst said. “It’s a strong testament to what our staff does every day to promote clinical excellence.”

Such partnerships are one of the strategies that Christiana Care employs to achieve its goals of optimal health, exceptional experience and organizational vitality.

“When we talk about being innovative, respectful, expert, partners, it applies to patients, but it also applies to creating future practitioners and future leaders,” Kurfuerst said. “We want students to understand that you’re there to serve a patient population, their families, the community. It’s not just your 8-to-4 job. That’s what The Christiana Care Way underscores.”

Even if the students don’t end up working locally, the hope is that they will spread the philosophy they learned at Christiana Care wherever they pursue their profession.

“We feel a strong obligation to give back to the professional community and grow the future of health care,” Kurfuerst said. “This allows us to influence those who are giving care in our own community. It allows us to be a part of the academic training.”

Gregory Hicks, Ph.D., PT, chair of the UD Department of Physical Therapy, holds a similar philosophy.

“We’re the only PT program in Delaware, so we put out  a large proportion of the therapists in the state,” Hicks said. “As far as the training that goes into that, that goes out into the community. The investment that Christiana Car e is making in our students is really an investment in the state.”

This commencement graduated about 30 students and is the last of the department’s small classes, he said. Subsequent classes are double that size. As part of their training requirements, each student must complete 30 weeks — three 10-week rotations — of a clinical externship.

“Placing 30 — and now 60 students — that’s quite a volume of work,” he said. “That’s what this award is based upon, recognizing those folks who have gone above and beyond.”

The scope of opportunity within Christiana Care’s rehabilitation services is broad — from infants to geriatrics.

“At Christiana Care, we have anything and everything a student would want to learn or experience,” said Jennifer Thomas, MBA, MS, CCC-SLP, director of Rehabilitation Services overseeing inpatient therapists. “Students are on-site five days a week, so we get to see their work ethic, how they interact with patients, their caring, how they’re demonstrating the Christiana Care core values. It helps us from a recruitment standpoint.”

On the flip side, the university provides educational opportunities for the physical therapists. Jodi Hartlep, MHA/MBA, FACHE, director of Rehabilitation Services overseeing outpatient therapists, said the partnership benefits both Christiana Care and the University of Delaware.

“It gives our employees the opportunity to be clinical instruc – tors,” Hartlep said. “They love to help mold the profession for the future. Along with hosting the students, many of our physical therapists will act as lab assistants, guest lecturers and collaborate in research.” Above all, it’s the real-world experience that the partnership provides, she said. “In the classroom you learn the academic part of it, but there may be a lot of things going on with the patient that’s impacting their condition. This is something our therapists work with students on — what kinds of questions to ask patients so you can get to the root cause of the problem.”

Kurfuerst said the students keep Christiana Care’s staff on their toes. “It gives the physical therapists on staff the opportunity to remain up-to-date with practices,” she said. “When you have students asking you questions, you really have to think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”