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Derian Receives 2023 Outstanding Physical Therapist Fellowship Award from APTA

Joseph Derian portrait

The award honors recent fellowship grads, elevating the value of post-professional training.


JOSEPH DERIAN DPT ’16 HAS RECEIVED A 2023 OUTSTANDING PHYSICAL THERAPIST FELLOWSHIP AWARD from the American Physical Therapy Association. The award honors recent fellowship graduates, recognizing the value of post-professional training, while promoting the development and accreditation of fellowship education programs in physical therapy.

“It’s exciting that my efforts and the rigor of the program have been recognized,” said Derian, assistant professor of clinical physical therapy. “I had such a great group around me to push me to do as much as I did — it’s an awesome honor.”

Derian was the first fellow in USC’s newly accredited spine physical therapy fellowship, a 12-month clinical program that develops a clinician’s expertise as a primary care provider in the diagnosis and management of spinal disorders.

“Dr. Derian was ambitious, knowledgeable and forever curious, setting a standard for excellence in all arenas of the program, including teaching, scholarship, service and clinical care,” said Justin Lantz, the spine fellowship program director and associate professor of clinical physical therapy. “While he demonstrated great clinical reasoning and psychomotor skills, I believe what separated him from the rest was the supreme exhibition of compassion and empathy for his patients.”


Back Pain is Pervasive


Back pain has become an epidemic in the United States and beyond — it’s the leading cause of disability worldwide and has the highest prevalence globally among musculoskeletal conditions, according to the World Health Organization. 

Just one of the nation’s four spine fellowships to be accredited by the American Board of Physical Therapy Residency and Fellowship Education, USC’s spine physical therapy fellowship offers an interdisciplinary approach, teaching physical therapists a spectrum of spine care from post-operative acute care to chronic lifelong conditions. 

During the first few years of practice at USC Physical Therapy, the division’s clinical practice, Derian saw an uptick in patients with spine pain and developed an interest in treating this group of people.

“These patients tend to be more challenging to manage as their conditions are often complex, and they can have many comorbid conditions that you must take into account,” said Derian, who also completed an orthopedic physical therapy residency at USC in 2017.


Raising the Bar for Physical Therapy


The focus of USC’s spine physical therapy fellowship program is to train physical therapists to be a primary care provider for spine disorders, fostering a deeper understanding of the diverse conditions that affect the spine, or even can masquerade as back pain but require a different treatment entirely. 

While Derian had experience working with a range of patients and spinal issues, he was seeking to broaden his knowledge by understanding the perspectives of other providers.

“I wanted to know why certain patients required surgery or injections, and others didn’t,” he said. “That was the emphasis of the fellowship program, so I was immediately drawn to it.”

The fellowship program’s interdisciplinary faculty — including leaders in physical therapy, pain psychology, family medicine, physiatry, radiology, pharmacology, research and spine surgery — encompass a more integrative education and training.

“For patients with spine-related pain, the goal is to help get them back to what they want to do,” Derian said. “I think the first line of defense for many patients with spinal disorders is conservative management in physical therapy and is often more successful when collaborating with a patient’s primary care physician, surgeon or another provider.”

In addition to offering patients more comprehensive care, Derian looks forward to mentoring future fellows at USC. 

“I’m excited to try to raise the bar for what it means to be a physical therapist,” he says. “I want to help push the next generation of clinicians, so we can grow to be researchers and interdisciplinary collaborators who make a difference in this epidemic.”