Academic journal article Journal of Physical Therapy Education

Exploring the Ethos of the Physical Therapy Profession in the Unites States: Social, Cultrual, and Historical Influences and Their Relationship to Education

Academic journal article Journal of Physical Therapy Education

Exploring the Ethos of the Physical Therapy Profession in the Unites States: Social, Cultrual, and Historical Influences and Their Relationship to Education

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. The purposes of this study were (1) to describe the evolution of the professional culture and ethos of physical therapy in the United States, (2)to develop a conceptual framework for understanding how a professional ethos evolves, and (3) to explore the impact of the evolution of a professional ethos on the education of physical therapists. Three sources of data (ie, individual interviews with three Fellows of the American Physical Therapy Association; a focus group interview with 11 members of the Prime Timers; and historical documents, including Mary McMillan Lectures and Presidential Addresses) were used to triangulate the findings of this qualitative study. A qualitative data analysis was carried out using the constant-comparative and grounded theory methods. Results indicated that the professional ethos of physical therapy is composed of a set of core values, norms, and beliefs that are the basis for enduring traits that do not change over time, as well as a dynamic portion that responds to changes from both within and outside of the profession. These changes, as well as the entrance of newcomers into the field, contribute to the evolution of the professional ethos of physical therapy. A conceptual framework for understanding the evolution of a professional ethos is described, and implications for educators in physical therapy programs are discussed.

Key Words: Physical therapy education, Professional ethos, Professional socialization.


One of the goals of professional education is to assist students in becoming part of a professional community. Tammivaara and Yarborough1 have referred to this process of enculturation into a profession as attaining a professional ethos. Ethos is defined as "the distinguishing character, sentiment, moral nature, or guiding beliefs of a person, group, or institution."2(p247) The ethos of a profession, then, is composed of the distinguishing characteristics, sentiments, and beliefs of that profession that guide the behavior of practitioners. This professional ethos is most often reflected in Codes of Ethics and Standards of Practice founded in the norms and mores of the profession, which, in turn, can be viewed as a reflection of the values, attitudes, and beliefs of the profession.3

As part of the educational process, students in professional education programs must make a transition from the world of college life to a professional world. The cultural values of "student" must be transformed into the "professional ethos." The individual must stop being merely a competent student and must become a competent professional. This occurs as the student begins the process of "internalizing the values, traditions, and obligations of the profession... [it] occurs when the student develops a clear and accurate perception of the role of the profession and of the self as part of that profession."4(p27) Learning about the professional world thus involves not only mastering the skills needed to perform the work of the professional competently, but also internalizing the values and beliefs shared by others in the profession so that collectively held professional values and ideals come to characterize the very identity of the novice practitioner.

Like educators in other professional programs, academic and clinical faculty in physical therapy programs want their students to emerge from academia as competent professionals. They want students who have internalized the ethos of the profession and have developed a true sense of what it means to be a physical therapist. According to Tammivaara and Yarborough:

To do this, educational programs must develop a cultural orientation toward professional behavior, a professional ethos. This is not something to be offered as a course, or even a series of courses; this is an attitude, a set of values, which must be conveyed and practiced by the clinical and academic faculty. It must be manifest for students in expectations of their behavior, in the conduct and content of all courses, in the procedures of faculty/student interaction, in the evaluation of the students in the use of space, in clinical education, in the designation of professional heroes and valuing of the field's history, and most of all in the faculty's and clinical faculty's commitments to patient care, the primary task of physical therapy. …

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