Local educator looks to make an impact through new doctor of physical therapy program

A blank canvas may be daunting to some, but for Dr. Heidi Shearin developing a new program from the ground up is exciting.

Shearin was recently hired as the director of clinical education for Campbell University’s new doctor of physical therapy program which is projected to start in January, pending accreditation approval. She’s been working around the clock with the new program’s faculty and staff to meet accreditation deadlines, and help create a curriculum, develop courses and establish relationships with health care facilities.

“Doing a start-up is just amazing,” Shearin said. “The faculty dynamics here are so positive. It’s been such a great working environment where we’ve been able to develop a strong curriculum with creative ideas and unique approaches that will enhance our teaching model.”

The program’s focus of educating physical therapists who will practice in rural settings of central and southeastern North Carolina is very near and dear to Shearin’s heart, because she has worked in the region for over 20 years.

After going to high school in Fayetteville, Shearin returned to the area shortly after she earned her bachelor’s degree in physical therapy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Starting in an outpatient orthopedic clinic, she quickly moved into management where she operated more than 20 facilities over a 10 year period. From there she practiced as a physical therapy manager at a hospital in Sanford for eleven years.

During this time, Shearin was a guest lecturer for the physical therapist assistant program at Fayetteville Tech Community College. After earning her doctor of physical therapy degree from A.T. Still University in 2008, Shearin was asked to become an adjunct professor teaching radiography and evidence-based medicine for their transitional DPT program. She did that for a couple years, before moving to full-time at Fayetteville Tech as the program chair and academic clinical coordinator of education. 

Working at Fayetteville Tech was a stepping stone to her position at Campbell. Shearin developed a strong working relationship with a lot of the same clinics and facilities that she will place Campbell students for clinical training. But more importantly, she developed an understanding of the hiring struggles and shortages for physical therapists in the region.

“The Southern Regional Area Health Education Center conducted a survey a few years ago and found that physical therapy was the number one shortage of all allied health programs in southeastern North Carolina,” Shearin said.

She was part of a coalition that was formed in response to the survey tasked with identifying strategies for recruitment and retention of physical therapists in the local area.

“Essentially what we found was that homegrown students are the ones who are going to stay, and that is definitely where Campbell offers a really unique opportunity because a lot of the students are either from this region or they grow to love the area while they’re here,” Shearin said.

When she found out Campbell was starting a DPT program, she jumped at the opportunity to help train qualified clinicians in the region, “I am committed to preparing physical therapists who will practice in rural locations of North Carolina. Campbell’s program will really help meet the needs of the facilities and the patients in this area, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

In her new role, Shearin is working alongside the other faculty in the department to incorporate skills that will help prepare students to meet the unique challenges associated with practicing in rural settings.

One of their strategies is incorporating field experiences early in the education process. The department has outlined a curriculum that offers introductory clinical training and service learning throughout the first two years of the program. During the introductory experiences, students will shadow physical therapists and practice basic foundational skills at various clinical sites. The service learning component will reinforce the program’s mission of community involvement. 

Students will also have the opportunity to complete an internship at a hospital early in their education. The program has created a unique hospital-based course that prepares students for the acute care or sub-acute care internship. Shearin’s excited about the course because it is opening the door to place students in a hospital setting during the second year of the program.

“A lot of DPT programs don’t have a course like this,” she said. “Hospital placements are probably the most difficult to acquire because of the shortage of slots, but we are receiving support from local facilities because of the way we developed the course to correspond with the internship.”

Requiring students to complete at least one of four internships in a rural health care setting is another unique goal of the program. “We hope this internship will foster some type of desire for them to practice in an area that has a high shortage of clinicians,” Shearin said.

So far she’s been very fortunate in developing strong relationships with local facilities, and has received commitments from over 30 health care sites that are willing to train students.

In the meantime, Shearin is still busy with the in-depth process of helping to develop a new academic program. Although she misses interactions with students, she knows her hard work will pay off when the first doctor of physical therapy class arrives at Campbell University.