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’00 Emory PT Grad Becomes Influential Home Care Advocate

After unlikely beginning, Clay Watson becomes successful therapist, leading rehab advocate.
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After earning his undergraduate degree from Brigham Young University, Clay Watson, PT, MPT, remembers, in 1997, applying to several physical therapy schools around the country and getting met with a stack of rejection letters. An avid outdoorsman, he had already lined up a job to go sailing in the Bahamas.

Right before he was getting ready to leave, he got a call from the Emory Physical Therapy Program that would ultimately change the trajectory of his life. They had a few open spots in their Class of 2000 and wanted to talk to him. Watson, who was a Grand Canyon river guide at the time, flew to Atlanta for an interview and was soon accepted into the new class.

“The only PT school I got into happened to be one of the top schools in the country,” says Watson, who grew up in Tifton, Ga. “For me, it was a miracle.”

More than 20 years later, the 2000 Emory PT graduate is the owner/operator of Western Summit Rehabilitation in Salt Lake City, Utah, a home health therapy consulting and staffing agency that contracts with about 20 agencies and 50 physical therapists. But while his 11-year-old business continues to thrive, it is Watson’s work in the national and state advocacy arenas that has propelled him to legendary status within Utah’s rehabilitation community. As the current president of the Utah Association for Home Care, he is widely known at the Utah capital as a pioneer for his work in educating lawmakers and payers of the importance of physical therapy and home health care. His efforts have helped lead to some impressive legislative achievements in Utah including the first Utah Medicaid rate increase for home health providers in more than 12 years; state rules changes allowing physical therapy assistants and certified occupational therapy assistants to treat Medicaid patients; as well as statewide educational efforts aimed at legislators and payers on the importance of physical therapy in preventing falls.

For Watson, all of the success he’s had, including being named a recipient of the American Physical Therapy Association’s 2020 Excellence in Home Health Leadership Award, started at the Emory PT Program as a young graduate student known for his boundless energy and inability to sit still.

“I have really bad attention deficit disorder but at the time, I didn’t know it,” says Watson. “And so, sitting still for all of those classes was really, really hard for me. I was always bouncing up and down. I remember the biomechanics professor getting mad at me because I had to go walk around in the middle of all of my tests. But fortunately, I still got A’s.”

Watson credits his Emory professors for recognizing his challenges but still believing and instilling confidence in him.

“Marie Johanson (Emory DPT’s current interim director) was my research professor and I always felt this steadiness and kindness from her,” Watson says. “As restless as I was, her kindness really just settled me down in a very unique way. I’m forever grateful for that. I needed that calming influence because I was just bouncing off the walls.”

At his class graduation ceremony in 2000, Watson recalls how long-time Emory PT Professor and Director Pamela Catlin validated him in a way that he will never forget.

“Pam is standing there and I’m 6”4’ and she’s under 5”0’ and she looks up at me and says, ‘Clay, we always knew you had a lot of heart and that’s why we kept you. You’re going to do great things one day because of that heart,’” recalls Watson. “And that’s really been the mantra of my career which is following my heart and putting my all into it. That’s really been my guiding light to this day. It’s something that you don’t see in yourself until someone points it out. I am where I am now because of that.”

While Watson still loves his role as a caregiver, his success in the policy arena and the ability to affect positive changes for the entire home care physical therapy field is what currently drives him. He says that while large outpatient rehabilitation systems do an excellent job of using clinically driven treatment protocols and then giving their clinicians direct feedback on their outcomes, the home care field lacks needed data.

“Home care therapists often treat chronic diseases with many confounding variables and few protocols specific to their venue of care,” says Watson. “There is a vacuum of outcomes feedback for treating chronic diseases in the home.”

In the next few years, Watson wants to serve on the front lines of developing that data framework for his home care colleagues that will ultimately help prevent people from becoming home bound while resulting in substantial savings for the entire health care system.

More than 20 years into a career that almost didn’t happen, Watson is grateful each day for the opportunity to make someone’s life better.

“We’re helping people get out of their beds and re-enter the community and walk,” he says. “Being there for them, holding their hand when they cry and taking them through that process of getting back on their feet and moving, that therapeutic alliance – that bond – is just a true gift in my life. It helps me so much.”

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