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Essential Functions of Physical Therapy


It is the mission of the Department of Physical Therapy “… to educate Doctor of Physical Therapy students to practice autonomously within an evolving, complex, and diverse healthcare environment.” Our mission statement reflects the University’s focus on educating students to become leaders within their respective disciplines and is facilitated through the institution-wide learner centered educational philosophy. This philosophy requires that the students actively engage in outcome driven classroom, laboratory, experiential, and clinical education activities.

Students in the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program are required to acquire and integrate a large body of scientific knowledge, while simultaneously developing the clinical skills, behaviors, and attitudes of entry-level physical therapy practice. The DPT program selects applicants who we believe have the ability to become entry-level physical therapists ready to meet the challenges of today’s healthcare environment. In accordance with the accreditation standards of the Commission on Accreditation for Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), the DPT program has the prerogative and ultimate responsibility for selection and evaluation of its students; the design, implementation, and evaluation of its curriculum; and the determination of who is eligible to be awarded a degree.1 Admission and retention decisions made by the faculty are based on academic achievement as well as non-academic factors. Students are evaluated across academic and non-academic factors to ensure that they can successfully perform the essential functions of the academic program required for graduation.

The DPT program meets our responsibility to society to graduate knowledgeable, competent, and caring physical therapists, by requiring that students meet academic standards as well as the essential functions of the program. Consistent performance across all of these domains is required to enter into the program, to progress through the curriculum, and to meet the requirements for graduation from the DPT program. Policies and procedures outlining academic requirements for entrance into the DPT program (Admission Review, Readmission to the Professional Program), progression through the program (Academic Standards – Professional Years, Repeating Professional Courses) are located in the DPT Student Handbook. Policies and procedures for eligibility for graduation are located in the Student Handbook: Requirements for Graduation.

Essential Functions refer to acceptable demonstration of mastery and/or competence in various disciplines throughout the professional phase of the DPT program. Acceptable levels of mastery are judged by faculty members, examinations, and other measurements of performance. These areas of competency are:

  1. Affective skills that include emotional, behavioral / social, professionalism, and cultural competence.
  2. Cognitive skills that include sufficient intellectual, conceptual, integrative, and quantitative abilities to make effective judgments about patient / client management.
  3. Motor skills that include all necessary psychomotor clinical skills for patient care.
  4. Sensory skills including perceptual and observation skills necessary for patient care.
  5. Communication skills including verbal (oral and written) and non-verbal abilities.

These Essential Functions are the aptitudes and abilities that allow physical therapy students (and physical therapists) to complete the professional curriculum and to perform the clinical skills consistent with Patient / Client Management as detailed in the Guide to Physical Therapist Practice. These Essential Functions are described in detail below.

Students with Disabilities

It is our experience that individuals with disabilities (as defined by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act) may be qualified to study and practice physical therapy with the use of reasonable accommodations. To be qualified for the study of physical therapy in the DPT program at University of Sciences, students must be able to meet both our academic standards and essential functions, with or without reasonable accommodation. Accommodation is viewed as a means of assisting students with disabilities to meet essential standards by providing them with an equal opportunity to participate in all aspects of each course or clinical experience. (Reasonable accommodation is not intended to guarantee that students will be successful in meeting the requirements of any one course or clinical education.)

The Use of Auxiliary Aids and Intermediaries

Qualified students with documented disabilities, who are provided with reasonable accommodations, may use an intermediary or an auxiliary aid. No disability can be reasonably accommodated with an intermediary that provides cognitive support or substitutes for essential clinical skills, or supplements clinical and ethical judgment. Such reasonable accommodations should be designed to help the student meet learning outcomes without eliminating essential program elements or fundamentally altering the DPT curriculum. Thus, accommodations cannot eliminate essential program elements or fundamentally alter the DPT curriculum.


  1. Upon admission to the Physical Therapy Program at University of the Sciences all students must sign a form acknowledging that they have read and understand the essential functions.
  2. Students who may have concerns about meeting these expectations are advised to meet with the Chair of the Department of Physical Therapy.
  3. If a student feels that he/she requires reasonable accommodation for didactic and/or clinical components of the program, he/she must contact the Assistant Dean of Students in the Division of Student Affairs before any accommodations can be made. Students who have a change in status at any point during their matriculation in the PT program requiring accommodation should begin this process at the time of status change.
  4. Due to the time it takes to properly evaluate a student’s needs and to implement reasonable accommodations, it is recommended that students request accommodations as early as possible. While it is possible that need for reasonable accommodation may arise unexpectedly, it is preferable to make a request for accommodation at least 30 days before the start of a course or clinical education experience.

Essential Functions:


Use appropriate verbal, nonverbal, and written communication with all individuals when engaged in physical therapy practice, research, and education, including patients, clients, families, caregivers, practitioners, consumers, payers, and policy makers.


  • Express own ideas and feelings clearly and demonstrate a willingness and ability to give and receive feedback.
  • Receive and send verbal communication in emergency situations in a timely manner within the acceptable norms of clinical settings.
  • Analyze and communicate information on the patient's status with accuracy in a timely manner to members of the health care team, including seeking supervision and consultation in a timely manner.
  • Demonstrate interpersonal skills as needed for productive classroom discussion, respectful interaction with classmates and faculty, and development of appropriate therapist –patient relationships.
  • Communicate clearly and audibly during interactions with classmates, professors, patients, and members of the healthcare team.
  • Listen attentively and actively in order to receive and interpret oral communication.
  • Communicate effectively and sensitively in English with other students, faculty, staff, patients, family, and other professionals, in both oral and written formats.
  • Elicit a thorough history from patients; and communicate complex findings in appropriate terms to patients and to various members of the health care team.


  • Receive, write, and interpret written communication in both academic and clinical settings.
  • Read and record observations and plans legibly, efficiently, and accurately in documents such as the patient's record, which may be written or electronic.
  • Complete reading assignments and search and evaluate the literature.
  • Complete written assignments and maintain written records, including both handwritten and electronic.


  • Establish rapport with client, care givers, and colleagues.
  • Observe patients for the purposes of eliciting information; accurately describing changes in facial expression, mood, activity, and posture; and perceiving nonverbal communication.
  • Recognize and promptly respond to emotional communications such as sadness, worry, agitation, pain, and lack of comprehension of therapist communication.
  • Use therapeutic communication, such as attending, clarifying, coaching, facilitating, and touching.


Students majoring in physical therapy must possess a variety of gross and fine motor skills. These skills are reflective of the physical capacities required to perform the job of a physical therapist in a wide variety of settings. Students must be able to:

  • Maintain and assume a variety of positions including sitting for up to 2 hours continuously, frequent standing, walking, bending, squatting, kneeling, stair climbing, reaching forward, reaching overhead, turning, and movement of the trunk and neck in all directions.
  • Perform manual material handling and manipulation of various sizes and weights including lifting and transferring patients, guarding patients during gait training on level surfaces/uneven surfaces/ramps/stairs, pushing and pulling to provide resistance and to assist in maneuvering patients. Specific requirements include:
      • Safely lift up to 50 lbs independently
      • Safely lift up to 200 lbs with assistance
      • Safely push and pull up to 200 lbs
  • Demonstrate strong bilateral grasp during joint mobilization / manipulation and manually resisted exercise, bilateral gross and fine motor control and strength to perform therapeutic massage, fine motor control to manipulate testing instruments/equipment/ writing instruments/computers.
  • Manually palpate various body structures during examination and intervention procedures.
  • Balance self and provide support and balance to patients on a variety of surfaces including level and uneven ground, ramps, curbs, and stairs.
  • Have sufficient endurance to continue performing a variety of exertional activities for up to 8-12 hours with occasional rest breaks.
  • Respond quickly to emergency situations by lifting/pushing/pulling patients, applying force to perform CPR, assist with transporting patients.

Sensory Abilities

Includes the ability to perceive all information necessary for effective patient/client management inclusive of functional use of vision, hearing, and tactile sensations. During classroom, laboratory, and experiential learning activities (including but not limited to participation in one-on-one interactions, small group discussions and presentations, large-group lectures, and patient encounters) student must be able to perceive the presentation of information through:

  • Visual observation of:
    • Audiovisual presentations and written materials in lecture.
    • Laboratory demonstrations and procedures.
    • Patients/clients (at a distance and close at hand).
    • Treatment equipment, inclusive of textual and graphic readouts, and environment (at a distance and close at hand).
  • Auditory ability for:
    • Effective auscultation/auditory evaluation inclusive of but not limited to:  lungs, heart, apical pulse, blood pressure, joint noises, prostheses.
    • Environmental cues inclusive of but not limited to: phones, overhead paging systems, verbal communication in a setting with competing ambient noise.
  • Tactile ability for:
    • Appropriate feedback related to safe application of gradient pressures during examination and intervention (including but not limited to: palpation, manual muscle testing, joint mobilization, percussion, massage.)
    • Appropriate feedback for manipulation of dials, sensors, switches on all examination and therapeutic equipment.


Possess the emotional health required for the full utilization of his or her intellectual abilities, the exercise of good judgment, and the prompt and safe completion of all responsibilities attendant to the diagnosis and care of patients and families.

Maintain mature, sensitive, and effective relationships with patients, students, faculty, staff, and other professionals in academic and clinical environments including highly stressful situations.

Possess the emotional stability to function effectively under stress and to adapt to an environment that may change rapidly without warning and/or in unpredictable ways.

Understand that his or her values, attitudes, beliefs, emotions, and experiences affect his or her perceptions and relationships with others.

Possess the ability to reason morally and practice physical therapy in an ethical manner.

Demonstrate willingness to learn and abide by professional standards of practice.

Possess attributes that include compassion, empathy, altruism, integrity, honesty, caring, fairness, responsibility, concern for others, accountability, interest, tolerance, and motivation.

Interact effectively with individuals, families, and groups from a variety of social, emotional, cultural and intellectual backgrounds in a variety of settings.

Acknowledge and respect individual values and opinions in order to foster harmonious working relationships with colleagues, peers, and patients/clients.

Demonstrate the ability to be self-reflective.

Maintain general good health, self-care, and hygiene in order not to jeopardize the health and safety of self and individuals with which one interacts.

Possess adequate endurance to tolerate physically, emotionally, and mentally taxing workloads and to function effectively under time constraints, proactively making use of available resources to help maintain both physical and mental health.

Accept suggestions and criticisms and, if appropriate, to respond by modifying their behavior.

Demonstrate appropriate assertiveness, delegate responsibilities, and function as part of a physical therapy team.


Students majoring in physical therapy must possess sufficient intellectual-conceptual ability that includes the capacity to use integrative and quantitative abilities and make decisions. These cognitive skills are critical for the physical therapist to make clinical decisions during the examination, evaluation, diagnosis, prognosis, and intervention activities for patient/client management. Students must be able to:

  • Recall and retain information in an efficient manner in order to meet the minimal requirements in classroom and clinical environments to provide safe and effective patient care.
  • Gather information during patient examinations and throughout patient/client management to make clinical decisions.
  • Appraise information to determine appropriate tests and measures during the patient/client examination.
  • Evaluate the information gleaned from the patient/client examination, including patient history and any available medical/surgical/radiologic information, to formulate patient/client diagnoses, prognoses, and plans of care.
  • Acknowledge limitations of knowledge and/or performance in order to provide safe, effective patient care including the necessity of referring the patient/client to other healthcare professionals.
  • Prescribe therapeutic home programs as indicated by the results of the examination, utilizing a variety of instructional methods for patient/clients and/or family members.


1Evaluative Criteria for Accreditation of Education Programs for the Preparation of Physical Therapists (Adopted October 26, 2004 and effective January 1, 2006; revised 5/07, 10/07, 4/09), Commission on Accreditation for Physical Therapy Education. Available at: Last accessed 9/15/15.

Please print and sign the Essential Functions Signature Form to indicate you have read and understand the above information.