Interview with Dr. Sarah Blanton of Emory University

Dr Sarah Blanton is an Associate Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, Division of Physical Therapy. She has a specialty certification in Neurology through the American Board of Physical Therapy. Dr. Blanton’s research goal is to facilitate interdisciplinary collaborations to improve delivery of family-centered care in rehabilitation. Working with nurses, occupational and physical therapists, her current research focus examines the impact of using a telehealth platform for the delivery of a theory-based, family-focused upper extremity intervention program for stroke survivors and their carepartners in the home setting. The aim of the intervention is to reduce carepartner burden and depressive symptoms while improving stroke survivor upper extremity function. She has had several research grants exploring the integration of caregivers into the rehabilitation process and is currently the Principal Investigator of a 4 year, NIH-K23 funded clinical trial evaluating a telehealth application of a stroke caregiver education intervention. Dr. Blanton’s Lab, DISCOVER (Digital Scholarship Enhancing Rehabilitation), explores various ways digital scholarship can enhance rehabilitation research, education and clinical practice and promote interdisciplinary collaboration. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Humanities in Rehabilitation (JHR), an international and peer reviewed, multi-media journal using a collaborative model with rehabilitation professionals, patients and their families to gain a greater understanding of the human experience of disability through art, literature and narrative. The purpose of this interdisciplinary journal is to raise the consciousness and deepen the intellect of the humanistic relationship in the rehabilitation sciences. Dr. Blanton is a Fellow of the National Academy of Practice in Physical Therapy. In 2018, she was awarded the American Physical Therapy Association Societal Impact Award and the Emory University Creativity and Arts award for healthcare faculty.

Note: You should consult with your doctor or physical therapist for recommendations on treatment. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr. Blanton and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of

What inspired the Journal of Humanities in Rehabilitation?

JHR started in 2015, when a group of wise and insightful leaders in our profession, Jim Carey PhD, PT, FAPTA, Gail Jenson PhD, PT, FAPTA, Dolly Swisher PT, PhD, MDiv, FNAP, FAPTA, Nancy Kirsch PT, DPT, PhD, FAPTA and Bruce Greenfield PT, MA (Bioethics), PhD gathered together as part of an ACAPT task group to explore the possibility of a Journal that provides an outlet for the intellectualism that goes beyond science into the humanism that surrounds the patient/therapist relationship. There were journals in Medicine that provided this outlet for intellectual expression, but nothing in rehabilitation. One of the concerns identified by so many academic programs is the difficulty students have thinking critically and communicating effectively, self-reflecting, and understanding the uniqueness of the relationships that develop between patients and therapists. We felt that establishing a new journal dedicated to humanism within rehabilitation would expand our culture beyond science and education into the core of our human existence with attention to such values as dignity, hope, compassion, and justice. The Emory Center for Digital Scholarship offered us guidance and initial funding (along with the Emory Doctor of Physical Therapy program) to develop this innovative, online and multimedia journal. In addition to traditional scholarly academic contributions, we also accept submissions from patients and families to provide a platform for collaborative dialogue with those whom we serve. Finally, we have an interdisciplinary educational mission to serve as a training ground for students interested in digital humanities, with opportunities either as graduate editorial staff or members of our Graduate Student Ambassador program. In an effort to promote accessibility internationally and across disciplines, we are fully open access, with no fees for subscriptions or submissions.

Being a physical therapist or other rehab professional is about more than treating an injury or impairment- the conditions that professionals treat often affect the whole person, physically and mentally. How can professionals better address the whole person in their practice?

Great question!  By truly listening to their patients, not just for their signs and symptoms of their movement dysfunction, but for their hopes, fears, goals, concerns, and what gives them meaning in their life. Then, drill back down to co-construct together how you can best help them reach those goals and address those challenges. Patients want to know that their therapist has recognized not just their physical issues, but their experience of the illness as well- their experience of the disability, pain or restrictions.

How can an interprofessional approach help make this possible?

There is an old parable about three blind men and the elephant, each holding onto a part of the animal, the ear, the tail, and the trunk. Each describes what they think an elephant looks like, but none is able to truly describe the whole animal. I think similarly, each of us on a healthcare team can only describe part of the condition of a patient, but together, we can paint a more complete picture that helps us better address the patient as a whole.

 Many healthcare professionals, as Dr. Nicole Piemonte references in this essay, experience a “crisis of meaning” in their work. How can they find that meaning that has gone missing for them?

You have made an excellent observation – in particular, because the identification of this “crisis of meaning” goes deeper than simply clinician burnout or compassion fatigue. The first step is simply recognizing that these challenges occur in each of our clinical journeys, simply because we are caring and compassionate beings who are working within individuals who are struggling and in pain. We are also being profoundly impacted by the pressures that come from experiencing healthcare as a business with all of those pressures and demands. Developing effective self-management strategies is both important and a life-long process. I frequently tell PT students that, yes – graduate school can be very stressful, but navigating the stress and demands is also an opportunity to cultivate self-management skills that will help you later as a clinician. Specific to the humanities, practices of journaling/writing can help promote reflexivity and give you an avenue to plumb deeper into a clinical or personal experience to gain more insight and self-awareness. Poetry can help us not only slowdown from the hectic pace of life, but also use language in a beautiful manner to show different perspectives we may not always notice. Viewing art, similarly, allows us to appreciate beauty and quite literally creates a frame around the moment to simply pause and reflect. It does not change the moment, but our perception and experience of the moment, helping us to notice the other, as well as ourselves.  Reading the classics in literature reminds us of our shared humanity across time, that we are not the first to ever face these challenges, confront fears and despair, or relish in joys and love. These are just examples of how humanities give us the tools to navigate our world, to help find meaning in difficult and challenging times. 

In “Goodbye, With Love”, in the April issue, author Amanda Sharp references the challenges of ethical decision making when deciding whether to continue treatment for a patient who wants to stop treatment but who has family members who want to keep trying. How can PTs learn to prepare to address these sorts of tough ethical situations?

Recognizing that education in navigating ethical issues and moral dilemmas is critical to our practice, the PT profession incorporates both ethical training requirements in curricula as well as post-graduate continuing education requirements for licensing. The APTA has a publication, PTinMotion, that has a regular ethics column “Ethics in Practice” by Nancy Kirsch, PT, DPT, Phd, FAPTA, providing examples of day to day challenges we may encounter as PTs. ACAPT has a consortium, CHEP – Consortium on Humanities, Ethics and Professionalism, that also helps to foster awareness. They are co-sponsors with JHR of our annual student essay contest. The Emory Doctor of Physical Therapy program has a dual degree opportunity for a DPT/MA-Bioethics. These are just a few of the resources PTs have to continue life-long learning in ethics.

If you could require all DPT students to take one humanities course, what would it be?

Any course that sparks a passion or interest!  Moreover, courses that will help you think outside of the sciences. Probably, if I had to choose one, it would be a literature course, for several reasons. First, a critical component of our work in PT is being an effective communicator, and having a strong foundational appreciation of the power of language so important. How well we can communicate is fundamental to the strengths of our interprofessional relationships and shapes the care we can provide as a rehabilitation team. Secondly, research has supported the impact of reading (in particular fiction) to improve our empathy and awareness of others by helping transport us into another person’s story. Indeed, it has been said that all we are, are our stories. And learning to truly listen is one of those essential skills that make us better practitioners, and better people. Recognizing the importance of the skills of critical reading, writing, and reflection is one of the primary reasons we started JHR. 

What aspect of your work are you most proud of?

Mentoring students, watching them grow and become passionate in this area of humanities. It is so exciting to help them see the impact of their work on our profession, and to watch them truly personify what “humanism in rehabilitation” really means. I grow and learn with each student, which is such a gift.

What advice do you have for those considering a career in physical therapy?

Gain as much experience by working and observing as you can, to get a sense of the various avenues and methods of practice (so not just the amount of observation hours, but the variety is important). Get familiar with APTA website – what the mission and focus for our profession is now and in the future. When you apply to a school, individualize the school specific essay, find out aspects of that program that resonate with you and identify why you want to go there.  Graduate training is a major time and financial commitment, so know why you want to go to that school before you apply, because that strengthens your application.