Ithaca College Quarterly 2005/1
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PT's New Foot and Ankle Center

A passion for education and research is the basis for Ithaca College's new Center for Foot and Ankle Research in Rochester. The center is the College's answer to a startling statistic: the U.S. population spends $3 billion a year on foot health, according to the Cleveland Clinic Health Information Center.

Over the past decade Ithaca College's Department of Physical Therapy at the Rochester campus has developed a strong, collaborative relationship with the Strong Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Institute at the University of Rochester. This relationship began in 1995 when IC physical therapy professor Debbie Nawoczenski and Judy Baumhauer, M.D., of the University of Rochester combined their passion and expertise to study foot and ankle pathology. The growth of the research team has paralleled the expansion of personnel and technology in both departments. Nawoczenski says the center is among the few in the country that specialize in these parts of the body.

Jeff Houck joined the IC Rochester faculty in 1999, bringing expertise in lower-extremity biomechanics and gait analysis. Ernest Nalette, chair of the PT grad program at IC's Rochester campus, directs the team and supporting staff. Another member of the team is Josh Tome, an engineer who is a research assistant to both faculty and students in the movement analysis laboratory. The U of R added two foot and ankle orthopedic surgeons, Benedict DiGiovanni and Sam Flemister.

"It's a unique situation for an institution to have multiple foot and ankle specialists in one location," says Nalette. "What is also exceptional is that Drs. Baumhauer, DiGiovanni, and Flemister have the appreciation, skills, and commitment to research that are critical to advance patient care. In addition to collaborative work with our faculty, each has been involved with graduate physical therapy students in mentored research projects."

The center focuses on devising treatments for foot and ankle problems, teaching PT graduate students, implementing new research into clinical practice, and carrying out community service activities such as screening examinations for the "high-risk" foot. Over the past nine years the team's collaborators have included physicians, pedorthists, orthotists, a statistician, a chiropractor, medical residents and students, and other biomechanic experts in physical therapy. They play key roles in the research studies, often referring patients to the center for research purposes. The majority of these studies enroll between 20 and 30 patients, but the center has had studies involving as many as 101 patients. Nawoczenski says the researchers are using state-of-the-art technology to study problems of the foot and ankle, including heel pain (plantar fasciitis) and posterior tibial tendonitis associated with flat feet, and even studying how hallux (big toe) motion may cause arthritis in the toe. They are also researching new pressure-reducing devices for patients who have foot ulcers.

Nalette hopes the center will expand its education aspect for graduate students. "We anticipate that opportunities for students in collaborative studies related to foot and ankle dysfunction will continue to develop," he says. "We hope to continue attracting external funding specifically for foot and ankle research."

As part of the movement analysis laboratory, the College's center benefits from external funding sources such as the National Institutes of Health and the Whitaker Foundation. The center has also recently received a grant from an industry sponsor to research the scientific basis of the company's orthopedic products.

"We have an extraordinary combination of individuals with technical and clinical expertise who value the necessity of research to improve clinical practice," says Nalette. "The creation of our Center for Foot and Ankle Research formalizes this collaboration and recognizes Ithaca College's role as a premier player in this field."

Photos by Jim Largay

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