Dawn Brown, PT, DPT, Ed.D. '22, Works to Improve Access to Physical Therapy Services for Historically Marginalized Populations

By Lia Kizilbash Gillet

Dawn Brown, PT, DPT, Ed.D. '22, is the newly appointed Illinois State Board of Health physical therapist. 

Despite growing up in significant economic and social deprivation, Dawn Brown, PT, DPT, Ed.D., ’22, refused to let her circumstances define her and instead used them to motivate her to work hard to succeed. Today, as a doctor of physical therapy, assistant professor, and newly appointed Illinois State Board of Health (SBOH) member, Brown is a passionate advocate for those who face similar challenges, especially students and healthcare patients from historically marginalized communities.

“I have evolved into the person I am today and am grounded by my humbled beginnings,” she said. “I was that Black person who was not expected to succeed because I lived in poverty, experienced housing insecurity, had family members murdered, and had several die because of lack of access to healthcare. Yet, I was determined to succeed and defy the odds that society stacked against me based on preconceived notions and biases because of my race and adverse circumstances.”  

During Brown’s first 17 years of experience in clinical practice diagnosing and treating patients with a range of musculoskeletal conditions and injuries, she observed many patients who faced barriers when trying to access physical therapy services. 

“Everyone should have access to a physical therapist to achieve optimal health and wellness,” said Brown. “Unfortunately, populations that are historically marginalized because of race and ethnicity face significant barriers, in addition to individuals that are older, unemployed, uninsured or underinsured. Many of the patients I treated during my early career lived in historically under-resourced areas and had numerous challenges with accessing the healthcare system due to facing systemic racism because of being Black, due to a distrust of physicians, or due to their low socioeconomic status.”

Brown says improved access to the services of physical therapists can be achieved at the grassroots level, starting with education for people within communities and especially for physical therapy students. As an assistant professor and the assistant chair of curricular affairs, leading the development and delivery of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program curriculum at Northwestern University’s Department of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences in the Feinberg School of Medicine, Brown is committed to educating future physical therapists about the broader social, economic and environmental factors that impact an individual’s health outcomes.

“Population health, social determinants of health, health inequities, and healthcare access should be prioritized as threads throughout the Doctor of Physical Therapy curriculum—both didactic and clinical,” she said. “Exposure to these topics will place value on patient management beyond individual interventions and toward improving the health of neighborhoods and communities. I constantly remind students that they are treating people and populations, not diseases.” 

Brown emphasizes that patient healing is magnified when doctors of physical therapy recognize how the environment in which people are born, live, learn, work, play, and age affect their overall health, wellness, and quality of life. She hopes when students become licensed physical therapists, they will value and prioritize integrating population health within their clinical practices. 

Nominated from Governor JB Pritzker’s office to serve on the SBOH as the physical therapist representative, Brown advocates for healthcare access and equality, advises on rules, policies, and program proposals, and addresses emergencies and health hazards to promote a healthier Illinois. Brown says she has a social responsibility to respond to the healthcare needs of the communities where she lives and works. She is grateful for this role—giving her the opportunity to positively change the face of healthcare locally.

As a Doctor of Education student, Brown describes her time at NIU as “eye-opening, inspiring, and challenging” all rolled into one.

“My three years of education at NIU far exceeded my expectations,” said Brown. “Several courses in the Ed.D. curriculum focused on leadership through a social justice and equity lens, which aligned with my professional interests. I looked forward to attending classes and completing assignments because the delivery of the content by the professors was engaging, and my eagerness to learn and curiosity piqued after each course.”

Dr. Gudrun Nyunt taught courses in Brown’s cohort program and piqued her curiosity for examining and exploring the lived experiences of others through qualitative methods.

“Dr. Nyunt’s lectures on qualitative research were engaging,” recalled Brown. “My first professional peer-reviewed publication, ‘Motivations to Pursue an Ed.D. in Higher Education: A Qualitative Case Study,’ came to fruition because I was afforded an opportunity to be a student researcher with Dr. Nyunt for this study. This research paved the way for my current professional research agenda, focusing on leadership development and motivation in physical therapy education and clinical practice through a diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging lens.”

From 2016 to 2022, Brown was a clinical assistant professor and director of clinical education in the NIU Doctor of Physical Therapy program teaching content related to differential diagnosis, exercise prescription, and organizing and managing student clinical education experiences. She also assisted with the supervision of the NIU Physical Therapy Clinic. 

Working directly with students to inspire and motivate them to love the profession they are entering fulfills Brown as an educator.

“The professional and personal growth I experience while helping others is more valuable than any recognition and award I received for my teaching, research, and service,” she said.

Brown is the 2023 recipient of the Illinois Physical Therapy Association Societal Impact Award, the inaugural recipient of the Northwestern University Doctor of Physical Therapy and Human Movement Sciences Diversity Equity and Inclusion Award in 2022, and the 2021 recipient of the Northern Illinois University Richard A. Flournory Engagement Award that recognizes individuals who have worked to promote inclusivity at NIU over an extended period. 

With her extensive career in teaching, research, and service, Brown has been able to make a positive impact on the health and lives of many while filling her personal and professional life with wisdom and purpose.

“I lead with an attitude of gratitude and servitude to contribute to the greater good,” she said. “I also don’t let habits, fears, or the negative opinions of others keep me from maximizing my potential to grow and help others. I view challenges as a pathway for opportunities, turn my problems into my purpose, my pain into a publication, and my mess into a message.”