New hybrid programs and updated curriculums aim to increase accessibility of PT and OT education

July 02, 2024
Two women play with a little boy. They have opened a red farmhouse in front of him on a table.
Occupational therapists help people with skills that enhance their lives. Patients may be recovering from injuries or illnesses or living with disabilities. Photos by Anne Herford

As demand for occupational therapy outpaces the number of licensed occupational therapists and 16 of South Carolina’s 46 counties have fewer than 10 practicing physical therapists, MUSC hopes to create a larger, more diverse workforce with curriculum changes and the addition of two new hybrid educational programs.

MUSC’s nationally ranked Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) and Occupational Therapy Doctorate (OTD) programs are expanding with new hybrid options. The Hybrid DPT and Hybrid OTD programs create the opportunity for students nationwide to receive an MUSC education. Additionally, the existing residential formats of each program will be reduced to eight semesters from the program’s current nine-semester curriculum – a savings of $15,000 to $20,000 in the total cost of the programs.  

Megan Donaldson, PT, Ph.D., chairwoman for the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences in the College of Health Professions and Hybrid DPT program director, is at the forefront of this development. Donaldson previously served as the founding program director of the Hybrid DPT program at Tufts University. She joined MUSC in 2023. 

“There is a workforce demand in PT and in OT, and you want to have the best clinicians trained by the best people. MUSC is positioned very well to do that as an academic medical institution. Our programs – both PT and OT – are top 10% in the entire nation,” said Donaldson. 

By creating these hybrid programs, Donaldson is hopeful that they’ll increase the readiness of a larger workforce to meet the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projected 17% and 14% demand increase for PT and OT, respectively. But more than that, she hopes to grow a more diverse workforce that represents the populations their graduates will be serving and increase access to care in rural areas. 

“We know that some people are still going to do the residential format because that fits them,” said Donaldson. “But these programs have a bigger reach that allows people with different learning styles or preferences to still get an MUSC education.”

Two women work together. One is holding a basketball. 
Physical therapy consistently ranks among the most satisfying careers.

Hybrid educational programs open doors for a wide range of students who otherwise would not be able to attend, including nontraditional students who are switching careers or have families. For many students, there is a significant savings in housing costs, as students can participate from any location with Wi-Fi.

During Donaldson’s time at Tufts, 40% of student cohorts came from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds. Not only were they racially and ethnically diverse, but many students were also first-generation college students, and some were in their 40s and 50s. 

“A hybrid learning environment provides students with the opportunity to continue living in their communities while achieving their educational aspirations. Students with family commitments can avoid uprooting their families and stay close to those who rely on them for support,” said Zoher Kapasi, PT, Ph.D., dean of the College of Health Professions. “We believe that offering hybrid programs will appeal to applicants from rural communities who may continue to serve in those communities upon graduation and therefore improve access to health care.” 

Donaldson and Twylla Kirchen, Ph.D., OTR/L, Hybrid OTD director, who joins MUSC from Rocky Mountain College in Montana, are taking great care to create a student-focused educational experience in the new programs.

“We take for granted the day-to-day interactions and forget how meaningful that in-person connection is,” said Donaldson. “We intentionally create a sense of belonging for hybrid students to feel connected, with faculty acting as coaches and role models.”

From the time students commit to attending MUSC, they are paired with faculty coaches who guide and mentor them throughout their educational journeys. Each faculty member will coach multiple students as part of a coaching group. The groups create supportive bonds that, in Donaldson’s experience, are often stronger than what you would witness in a traditional program.

The educational experience pairs online learning, both live and recorded sessions, with immersive, hands-on clinical labs at MUSC’s hybrid campus in downtown Charleston. After visiting Charleston twice per semester for the first six semesters, students begin their clinical and fieldwork rotations at clinical sites all over the country. 

“As part of this innovative program, students are going to be exposed to telehealth, digital technologies and a lot of education resources,” said Donaldson. “My hope is that they will learn to navigate that so they’ll be ready to overcome challenges no matter what the future throws at them.”

While both the hybrid and residential programs have the same curriculum, each program will have its own dedicated faculty. Thanks to expansion of both programs, MUSC is expanding its award-winning faculty, hiring top talent from all over the country. Like students, hybrid faculty members, many of whom are at the top of their professions, will bring their expertise to MUSC without being restricted by location.

The curriculum changes and addition of the hybrid programs are currently being reviewed by their respective accrediting bodies. Students who entered the residential programs this year will continue with the current nine-semester curriculum. 

MUSC plans to welcome the first hybrid cohorts in the fall of 2025. Due to the streamlined curriculum, the residential programs will transition from a summer to a fall start in 2025. Applications for all four programs opened on July 1. 

As she looks forward to welcoming the first cohorts, Donaldson is optimistic about what the future will hold for them. “I hope they leave a mark of being a class that embraces innovation, telehealth and the need to serve our population in a way that’s future-focused – it’s not just about meeting the needs right now; it’s about preparing them for the future of health care.”

For more information about the new programs, visit

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