Physical therapy students gain experience with volunteer clients

Physical therapy students work with their "patients" in PT 630. Volunteers with actual injuries or pain help students gain real-life experience caring for clients.

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February 14, 2013

By Steven Johnson ’13

Students in Physical Therapy 630, the foundations of physical therapy, gain some real practice in the field even though the “patients” they are seeing aren’t.

At the end of the required course, part of the Doctor of Physical Therapy curriculum, students deal with volunteers from the community who are experiencing different injuries or aliments. The students benefit from the hands-on experience by working on real-life injuries and also by receiving feedback from their patients on how they performed.

“What I do with students in this class is teach them patient handling,” said Dr. Dawn Hall, an associate professor of physical therapy who teaches the course. “Such as how students work with patients and the things they need to consider when they are evaluating them in terms of subjective evaluation and how to go about treating them in terms of modalities, like hot and cold packs, massages and ultra sound.”

Kelsey Nevell, a physical therapy graduate student, spoke highly of the class and of her experience interacting with the volunteers. Nevell said normally students would practice in class by pairing off and acting out a musculoskeletal pathology while the other student acted as the therapist. In PT 630, however, students were presented with real problems that required a more holistic approach.

“It is much different when working with people who are actually experiencing difficulty with function and mobility,” she said. “It becomes all the more important to take a complete history and really understand how the pathology is affecting their life.”

Nevell underscored that the most important thing she learned from the course was to treat the patient as a whole, such as considering how the injury or pain is affecting the patient’s life. For Nevell, physical therapy goes beyond curing pain; it helps people to get back to their prior level of function.

“This often means strengthening through exercise and modalities for pain, but can also involve being taught how to use crutches or how to get in and out of bed,” she added.

Matthew Schultz, also a graduate student in physical therapy, agreed. Though surprised and a little nervous about working on genuine injuries, he said the class gave him the confidence need to carry out a full evaluation of his volunteer.

“I think the surprise helped me gain confidence in my ability. We had to pull together material from all of our classes to evaluate the patients, so it was a great opportunity to see how much we have learned, and where we need to improve,” he said. “It brought a new level of realness to what we were learning.”