Selected Legal Issues Influencing Evaluation of Physical Therapist Graduate Student Professional Behaviors in the Academic Environment

Article excerpt

Background and Purpose. From an academic perspective, there exists the continuing challenge to integrate how well a physical therapist graduate student has performed in the academic course of study with how successfully the student has demonstrated appropriate professional behaviors that are consistent with professional practice standards. Potential conflict arises when a student may be progressing satisfactorily in coursework but demonstrates certain professional behaviors that the faculty deem inconsistent with successful physical therapy practice and which may suggest removal of the student from the program. It is the intent of this article to not only provide a legal framework for administrators and faculty often faced with legal issues surrounding such decisions, but to provide experienced-based recommendations regarding how best to evaluate professional behaviors within the academic program environment. Case Description, Outcomes, and Discussion. This paper presents a case study of a physical therapist graduate student who demonstrated several behaviors inconsistent with professional standards despite good academic standing with a description of the due process through which the student pursued an appeal of suspension from the program. The events of the case are presented with a discussion of those legal issues in higher education relevant to the case and lead to several recommendations for ensuring good faith and due process in maintaining professional standards.

Key Words: Professional behaviors in academic programs, Goodfaith and due process.

INTRODUCTION

Professional education in physical therapy, as in all health care programs at the graduate level, includes the learning of specialized knowledge and skills as well as the accumulation of the values, beliefs, and attitudes of that profession.1 The continuing challenge for physical therapist educators is to provide effective didactic and experiential opportunities for students so that they may be prepared for the rigors of practice, but also to teach them to display the attitudes and behaviors that portray those traits embraced by the physical therapy profession. Inherent in this process is the need for educators to determine whether students have made sufficient progress in the academic and/or clinical curriculum to merit continuance in the physical therapist education program.

In addition to obtaining excellent clinical skills needed for practice-based issues, students must also be able to act professionally and work with patients using superior "interpersonal and communication skills."2·3 The expected professional behaviors and attitudes are similar in many of the health care professions. Specifically, May and colleagues, in discussing desirable student capabilities, identified several professional behavioral traits expected of students entering the physical therapy profession.4 Similarly, Kaufman advocates that effective professional practice and the development of expertise require development and maturation of sophisticated skills in areas of cognitive, psychosocial, and moral behavior.5 At the most basic level, most authors agree that students should exhibit honesty, integrity, and human respect. A number of studies have been conducted to provide some guidance as to the best manner for academic programs to incorporate or foster physical therapist professional behaviors, such as communication, adherence to legal and ethical codes of practice, respect, empathy/sensitive practice, and accountability.3-6

From an academic perspective, there exists the challenge to evaluate how well a graduate student has performed both in the academic course of study as well as successfully demonstrating professional behaviors. For example, should the professional behaviors be incorporated into the course of study and graded as part of the course requirements, or should such behaviors be evaluated apart from the formal course work but included in annual evaluations of progress toward the degree? …