Dr. Dawn Gulick, PhD, PT, ATC, CSCS, is a professor of physical therapy at Widener University in Chester, PA. She began her clinical career as an athletic trainer, before earning her master’s degree in physical therapy more than 30 years ago. Dr. Gulick has been a Widener faculty member for about 22 years and HawkGrips instructor for the past three years. In this Q & A article, she discusses her educational roles, extensive background with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams, and how HawkGrips treatment has been implemented into the curriculum at Widener.
What does your position at Widener entail?
I teach the orthopedic thread of the curriculum. So that basically includes our biomechanics course, three orthopedic classes and a sports medicine elective.
How did you first become familiar with HawkGrips?
I actually met [HawkGrips Founder & President] Frank Osborne at a national conference about six years ago. A mutual friend introduced us and it turned out we were pretty much neighbors, since HawkGrips and Widener are both located in suburban Philadelphia.
At the time, my familiarity with instrument assisted soft tissue mobilization (IASTM) was extremely limited. So learning more about HawkGrips helped me become more knowledgeable about IASTM in general. Part of that was through networking with Frank to meet local IASTM practitioners like Dr. Mark Butler, who works at NovaCare in New Jersey, and Dr. Michael Lehr at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, PA. Eventually I developed a strong enough grasp of the concepts and techniques to become an instructor for HawkGrips educational courses.
Do you maintain a clinical role outside Widener?
Yes that’s strongly encouraged as part of our academic role. So I work a little at a local outpatient facility and was a partner with Aqua Sport Physical Therapy for many years. But most of my clinical work has actually been with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams.
At what point did you become involved with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams?
I started working with some of the elite national teams in 1993. Then I got involved with the Paralympics in 1999 and began covering various Paralympic teams for training camps and tournaments, both domestically and internationally, including World Championships and Olympic Games.
Which Olympic Games have you been to?
Pretty much every Summer Olympics since Atlanta in 1996, including the 2016 Olympics in Rio. I’ve worked with a number of elite international teams on the Olympic level, but most of my experience since the 2000 Games has been with the Paralympics. Specifically quad rugby, track & field, wheelchair tennis, and a sport called goalball for the visually impaired.
When you’ve worked with Olympic and Paralympic athletes, has it been as a team athletic trainer, physical therapist, or both?
Initially, the United States Olympic Committee only approved athletic trainers to travel with the national teams, but over time physical therapists have been granted permission as well. I’m certified as both and the two roles can be so intertwined when I’m with the teams, they’re almost indiscernible. I actually take a select number of HawkGrips instruments with me when I travel and have had athletes specifically ask to be treated with them.
As a clinician, why do you think the instruments are beneficial?
I’ve been a manual therapist for three decades now, and it’s no secret your hands take a beating in our profession. So I welcomed the opportunity to try the instruments, and there’s no doubt I feel a different sensation through them, something I honestly can’t always explain. But in realizing I could provide very effective treatment with the instruments and at the same time save my hands, it proved to be a win-win all around.
What kind of feedback do you get from patients about why they like HawkGrips and what they find effective about the treatment?
Some people feel it’s very helpful in releasing trigger points, while others say it increases their flexibility or decreases muscle tension. Sometimes we focus on freeing up surrounding tissue, and other times influencing the healing cycle by impacting the tissue alignment.
Can you talk about the “Scrape & Tape” educational course you helped launch as a HawkGrips instructor?
Certainly, that course originated as a partnership between HawkGrips and Dynamic Tape. It combines IASTM with therapeutic taping to maximize treatment effectiveness for certain conditions. As a rehabilitation specialist, I don’t think any of the treatments we do ever stand alone. There are always other treatments or exercises that complement them.
So you often look for that right combination, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If you can influence the tissue and then help a person utilize those tissues in a more appropriate way, then that motion is strengthened and a passive treatment becomes a dynamic intervention.
In addition to “Scrape & Tape,” do you teach other HawkGrips courses?
Yes, I’ve taught a few others as part of the affiliation between HawkGrips and Patterson Medical, which is now Performance Health. In fact, just a few months ago I instructed a HawkGrips “Level I: IASTM Fundamentals” course, which doesn’t include a taping component. In my approximately three years as a HawkGrips instructor, I’ve probably taught six or seven courses overall.
Has HawkGrips treatment also been implemented into the curriculum at Widener?
Absolutely. HawkGrips as a company has been kind enough to loan us instruments so we can offer hands-on education. We introduce the treatment in our orthopedic courses when discussing soft tissue interventions. In my opinion, and this is basically the position we’ve taken in our curriculum, mastering IASTM techniques isn’t necessarily an entry-level skill. But we think it’s important for students to be exposed to many different interventions. So when they receive their license and are working in a clinic, or even when they’re still on clinical rotations, they’ll at least have the physiologic underpinnings to understand why if they see a practitioner using these techniques.
At this point, I think there’s still significant variability in how clinicians implement IASTM, and a lack of tried-and-true protocols. There’s a lot we need to learn about it, and we’re still experimenting to determine optimal treatments. But I believe it’s important for students to recognize this should be part of their repertoire. Then they can decide to pursue additional training upon graduation if it would be relevant to their practice setting.
What kind of feedback do you get from Widener students about IASTM?
I’ll introduce the concept and techniques by mentioning I was actually skeptical myself when I first tried it. So basically I just ask them to keep an open mind, experience it and reserve judgment until they see how it plays out in clinical practice. But I think many of the students are a little surprised by how much they feel resonation of the tissue through the HawkGrips instruments. They ask a lot of questions about what they’re feeling and why. So I need to be honest and say I don’t always know the answer. But the treatment can definitely get them thinking, which we want to encourage.
How would you compare HawkGrips to other IASTM tools on the market?
I’ve used a couple competing products, and I personally like the feel of HawkGrips, as well as their weight and texture. Having a textured grip means you can relax your hands a little more. And I believe most seasoned clinicians would say the ability to relax your hands actually enables you to feel more. So that’s definitely an advantage.
Can you offer any thoughts on what it’s like to interact with HawkGrips as a company?
I think they’re a very nice group to work with, always open to discussion, and amenable to supporting research and the academic environment. So I have nothing but good things to say about the people at HawkGrips.
You’re also the co-creator of a clinical application for smartphones called iOrtho+. How would you describe the origins of that app and its focus?
The origins of iOrtho+ go back about a decade. In many academic situations, students can challenge you with very interesting ideas and thoughts. They often request various resources to help them be successful in PT school, and at one point students asked me for a study guide to review for an orthopedic exam.
So I made an outline for them and over time it grew to be more comprehensive, including pictures of orthopedic tests and related descriptions. Then students began asking if it would be possible for the resource to be printed on cardstock or laminated, so it would be easier to take into the clinic.
This led me and one of my colleagues, Dr. Christopher Wise, PT, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT, MTC, ATC, chair of the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program at Alvernia University in Reading, PA, to put our heads together and create something called “Quick Notes.” It was similar to the kind of resource you’d find in the reference section at Barnes & Noble, such as a laminated periodic table.
That was available for a little while, and then came the era of smartphones. I think it was the winter of 2010 when a student asked me, “Have you ever thought about putting this on a phone?” My answer to that was no, and I wouldn’t know how if it had occurred to me. But soon afterward at a national conference in February 2010, I had a discussion with somebody else about it, and within an hour they introduced me to another person who had a resource to make the conversion.
So about a month after returning from the conference, we had a developer ready to write the code to upload all the data. By the summer of 2010, we released the Apple/iOS version of iOrtho+. So it was pretty fast and furious, because we already had the content pretty much developed. We started the app with approximately 80 tests and another 80 techniques. Now here we are seven years later with over 350 tests and more than 100 techniques that include not just descriptions, images and references, but also videos.
It’s been an interesting evolution and we continue to upgrade the app a couple times a year, adding new literature and tests. We even have a section where people can suggest tests or techniques that aren’t currently included. If we find evidence to support their suggestion and decide to add it to the app, we’ll reference the person who told us and send them a gift card. So that’s been a fun way to engage with people as they find interesting ways to utilize iOrtho+.
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