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ATSU-ASHS alumna among first to earn board certification in oncologic physical therapy

Paula Stout, PT, DPT, ’12, CLT-LANA, has seen cancer patients fall through the cracks. They have surgery, treatment, and months will go by before they see her and tell of struggles they continue to have with the most basic functions of daily life. 

It doesn’t have to be that way, Dr. Stout says. The A.T. Still University-Arizona School of Health Sciences (ATSU-ASHS) alumna is among the first who have earned board certification in oncologic physical therapy, a specialty she hopes increases awareness of an important and often overlooked aspect of cancer treatment that can help those suffering from lymphedema, chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy, and a host of other physical issues. 

“Cancer-related fatigue is the No. 1 side effect of cancer treatments, and exercise is the No. 1 treatment,” Dr. Stout said. “But you have to have the appropriate exercise prescription. Physical therapists, that’s what we do.”

A physical therapist at Franciscan Point Rehabilitation in Crown Point, Indiana, Dr. Stout has always believed in the importance of continuing education, and put a great amount of research into where she would pursue her doctorate before deciding on ATSU. In addition to appreciating the core tenets of the University and its history as the founding school of osteopathic medicine, she chose ATSU because she wanted to be challenged.

“The reason I chose A.T. Still University was because of the education I knew I would get,” Dr. Stout said. “I could have gotten my doctorate a lot faster, and that was not my goal. My goal was not to get credentials behind my name, my goal was to make sure I was advancing my profession and providing better care for my patients.

“From the first day, you start out learning how to access literature in the best way for every patient you see. Immediately, I was able to apply what I was learning to my practice and in treating my patients, to make sure I was providing evidence-based practice and treatments to my patients.”

Soon after finishing her undergraduate program in 1998, Dr. Stout enrolled in an extensive training course to learn to treat lymphedema. She immediately had a new and growing patient base, but she also came to see how oncologic physical therapy could be expanded.

“Because patients were being sent to us later, they might be a year or more out of chemotherapy already. They’d say things like, ‘I still have trouble going up and down stairs, getting in and out of my car, reaching the top shelf of my cabinet,’ and they thought it was normal because of their surgery,” she said. “No, it’s not. I’m a physical therapist first. I can help you with those things.

“I became very passionate about helping to grow the field of oncology rehab”

Simultaneously, research was exploding in the area, with evidence showing not only that exercise was important for cancer patients, but it also reduced risk of cancer recurrence. 

In 2019, the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties, operating under the American Physical Therapy Association, gave its first exam and announced the first class of board certified oncologic physical therapy specialists. This furthered awareness among cancer specialists and provided a new network for collaboration between oncological physical therapy specialists.

“We’ve made advancements in the field, over the past couple of years, at light speed,” Dr. Stout said.

Physical therapists already possess a great understanding of the body and how to rehabilitate people and improve function. With added knowledge from the oncology side, Dr. Stout said they will also know what chemotherapy drugs cause different side effects and gain a better understanding of where patients are in their cancer treatment processes. This in turn helps them communicate with patients, so they better understand what’s happening to their bodies, and create specialized physical therapy plans. 

Ultimately, the goal is to make oncologic physical therapy part of regular cancer treatment. Dr. Stout said it would benefit the patient and physical therapist for their first encounter to come shortly after diagnosis and continue throughout treatment, survival, and beyond.

“The treatment they are going through and the process is very dynamic. What’s happening today is different than what’s happening tomorrow,” she said. “We’d like to see them preoperatively, so we can get a baseline.”

Her hope is no cancer patients fall through the cracks and struggle unnecessarily.

“If a cancer specialist is in doubt, they should send the patient to us,” Dr. Stout said. “I promise you that evaluation we schedule them for will not be wasted.”

Dr. Stout serves on the board of the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties and is an item writer for the oncologic physical therapy certification examination.

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