Our continued conversations series highlights the experts behind our content. Meet the presenters, contributors, and guest editors who make a difference in their fields and inspire our learners to do the same.
David Nolan, DPT, is an Associate Clinical Professor at Northeastern University in the Department of Physical Therapy, Movement, and Rehabilitation Sciences and a graduate lecturer in Northeastern’s College of Professional Studies in the transitional Doctor of Physical Therapy Program. He is also a clinical specialist in the Sports Physical Therapy Service at Massachusetts General Hospital and the director of the Mass General/Northeastern University Sports Physical Therapy residency program. An expert in sports medicine, orthopedics, manual therapy, and spinal dysfunction, he evaluates and treats patients with a wide range of musculoskeletal diagnoses and works extensively with elite runners, professional dancers, and other athletes at all levels.
Nolan is a longtime contributor and presenter for continued’s PhysicalTherapy.com and serves on its advisory board.
Why did you become a physical therapist?
I always thought of doing something in medicine or healthcare but wasn’t entirely sure what. When I was in high school, my younger sister was thrown from a horse and fractured her radius and ulna. She ended up in physical therapy, so that was my first exposure to the field. Prior to her accident, I really didn’t know this field existed. I went to a few physical therapy sessions with her and saw what a huge difference it made in her function and pain level, and that sparked my interest. After that, I did some volunteer work in a hospital near where I grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, and that solidified my interest to become a physical therapist.
Physical therapy can have such a profound impact on a patient’s day-to-day life. One of the things I enjoy about physical therapy is that we spend a good amount of time with a patient, sometimes multiple times per week, whereas a primary care physician may only see a patient once a year.
"Seeing how physical therapy can impact a patient’s life makes me feel blessed to be in this field. For me, it’s the ideal healthcare field."
What has sustained your passion for the profession over your 21-year career?
I really like working with patients and having a role in helping people get back to what they want to do and be able to move without pain. It’s rewarding to see people in a very challenging state go from not being able to do something that’s important to them to getting where they want to be. Seeing how physical therapy can impact a patient’s life makes me feel blessed to be in this field. For me, it’s the ideal healthcare field.
I also enjoy the interdisciplinary and interpersonal engagement. Where I work at Mass General, we have a large sports medicine division, and we work closely with orthopedic surgeons and primary care doctors and have great collaboration with other specialties, and that hugely benefits the patients and best facilitates what they need.
You work with a lot of premier athletes, including participants in the Boston Marathon. What is your role with the marathon?
I started volunteering with the marathon’s physical therapy team 17 years ago and have been overseeing that team for the last decade. What that entails is that I coordinate about 90-95 physical therapists who provide medical care at the finish line alongside the physicians, athletic trainers, nurses, and EMTs. It’s been incredibly rewarding to work with people from all over the world who are in town for the race and to provide care and have a leadership role within one of the six major marathons internationally.
How did your role differ at the 2013 marathon?
In 2013 [when two bombs were detonated at the finish line], the care we provided changed drastically compared to the usual cramps and dehydration-type issues we typically treat. Instead, we were responding to horrific trauma. I think the casualties would have been much higher had it not been for all the medical volunteers that were already so close to that area. There was a huge contingent of highly trained medical professionals who were right there and able to respond immediately. I think that if there is anything good that can come from that tragic day, it’s that this event is now even more special to our city. One of the things that made it special was all the people who came together to care for one another. I’m very proud to have been involved in that race for sure.
You’re also on faculty at Northeastern University. Why is teaching important to you?
Being a clinician makes me a more effective teacher, and being a teacher makes me a more effective clinician. I like that I have two hats. When I’m teaching physical therapy students, they’re typically going to ask more challenging questions than the average patient, so it forces me to stay current with new literature, which then carries over into my clinical practice. And the fact that I’m seeing patients nearly every day means that I’m talking about things in the classroom that maybe I just saw with a patient in the clinic, so that adds to my credibility in the classroom.
How have you seen your area of expertise evolve over your career, and what excites you about the future of your field?
In the years I’ve been in practice, this specialty has gone from a bachelor’s-level education to a master’s to the doctorate-level. The field of physical therapy continues to evolve to meet the needs of the ever-changing healthcare landscape. It’s an exciting time for the profession because we have more and more research and we’re seeing the bar being raised for the level of care within our field. Physical therapy is being viewed as a first-line intervention for so many different problems or pathologies or injuries now, which has been an exciting transition to see. It’s exciting to see our field grow, and I think there is even more to come.
"I think continued opens the door for a lot of people who always wanted to better themselves professionally but maybe haven’t been able to due to travel restrictions or time restrictions or financial restrictions. continued’s reasonably priced, expansive access to education eliminates a lot of those barriers."
You’ve been a part of continued’s PhysicalTherapy.com for more than five years as a contributor and advisory board member. Why do you value the work?
From the very first talk that I gave, it’s been a positive experience for me. The folks I work with at PhysicalTherapy.com are always professional, and the caliber of offerings are exceptional. They stay current and ahead of the curve so the offerings they have are staying true to the evidence and are cutting edge.
I also think that it’s fun to be a part of something that has the reach that continued has. It’s enjoyable to interact, although virtually, with people from all over the country and listen to and take questions from people outside of my northeast bubble. I think continued opens the door for a lot of people who always wanted to better themselves professionally but maybe haven’t been able to due to travel restrictions or time restrictions or financial restrictions. continued’s reasonably priced, expansive access to education eliminates a lot of those barriers. It’s a company I’m proud to be associated with.