Putting Students in Charge: The Benefits of a Student-Run PT Clinic

Firsthand accounts of running a student-run PT clinic from students at Widener University.

Over the last seven years, Widener University physical therapy students have had the opportunity to support the underserved community of Chester, Pa. through the Chester Community Physical Therapy Clinic. The clinic offers physical therapy to the underinsured and uninsured population in Chester and surrounding areas. As students, we provide these physical therapy services under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist. We also take on the responsibility of operating the clinic. This student-run model offers us not only the opportunity to grow as PT practitioners but also as leaders and mentors. Our faculty studied and reported on these outcomes in the APTA journal Physical Therapy in both 2011 and 2013.

Widener University’s Institute for Physical Therapy Education has 100% student participation in the clinic; therefore, every student has the opportunity to treat patients multiple times throughout each semester. First-year students begin working in the clinic during their first summer in the program. This experience allows students to get an understanding of the daily operations, the dynamic between the students and supervising therapists, and it offers the students a chance to begin to build their interpersonal skills with patients. To best convey the benefits of a student-run pro bono clinic, we have described our own experiences working in Widener’s Chester Community Physical Therapy Clinic:

WidenerPT_300xTim Golder: The first time I worked in the clinic, I had the opportunity to observe the second-year students treating patients and also practice taking blood pressure. The second-year students made me feel very comfortable from the moment I walked in the clinic, although I was quite intimidated by the fact that they were treating patients on their own. It was hard to imagine that soon, I too would be treating patients using fundamental PT skills. This experience demonstrated the impact of the culture of Widener’s Institute for Physical Therapy Education that emphasizes mentorship between students, especially when treating patients in the clinic.

Currently, I am in my second year of physical therapy school, and I have grown tremendously as a student physical therapist. I now feel very comfortable when working with patients, and I have been able to sharpen my skills each time I enter the clinic. Looking ahead to the next two years of my education, I plan to mentor the first-year students who recently entered the program to help them become acclimated to the clinic. The Chester Community Physical Therapy Clinic has provided me with an unparalleled hands-on experience from the start of the DPT Program, which will directly carry over to when I begin my clinical rotations.

Nolan Converse: My first opportunity to be in the clinic was on a busy night. I was supposed to be there solely to observe and to get a feel for the clinic, but there were enough patients that the student administrator told me he needed me to treat a patient. Words cannot describe how nervous that made me feel. ‘There’s no way that I can possibly be ready for this; I’m only in Anatomy,’ I said to myself. However, with the mentorship of the PT supervisor and the other students in the clinic, I was able to get over that initial fear. I quickly realized that the clinic was a place to grow with the help and mentorship of others.

I am starting my third year of the DPT Program, and I am now someone who the first- and second-year students look to for guidance in the clinic. I have already started the mentorship process with the class below me, which has been as big a learning curve as my initial experience in clinic. As I have the opportunity to help the first-year students with their patients in the clinic, I increasingly gain confidence in my own knowledge and skills.

In addition to treating patients and mentoring classmates, the students involved in the clinic also oversee its business model. Dr. Jill Black serves as the faculty supervisor for our clinic, along with faculty board members Dr. Kerstin Palombaro and Dr. Robin Dole. However, they allow the students total autonomy when it comes to clinic operations. Dr. Black often uses the phrases of “letting go” and “stepping back” in reference to empowering us as students to run the daily operations of the clinic, make changes to improve our efficiency when working in the clinic and create fundraising events to raise money, as just a few examples.

A student board runs the clinic and currently operates with 12 different positions with up to 15 students to fill each position. The positions that have the most responsibilities have multiple officers. The positions on the board range from fund officers who are responsible for raising money for the clinic to physician marketing officers who are responsible for reaching out to local physicians to create relationships and receive patient referrals. All members of the student board have a specific responsibility to carry out to keep the clinic running smoothly. Weekly meetings allow the student board to formally communicate with the other members of the board so that our jobs are being carried out in a timely fashion and any problems can be corrected as soon as they arise.

Each class has officers on the student board, and each student maintains that position from their first year until graduation. The members of the board must be within good standing academically within the program, and a student is replaced if that student’s grades begin to slip. The student board is selected through an application that is reviewed by Dr. Black, the faculty board, and the student board members who are a year above the applicants in the DPT Program. Because each class fills all positions on the student board, the clinic maintains its functionality throughout the entirety of the year. The second- and third-year student board members begin training the first-year students immediately after they are selected. The training continues throughout the fall and into the early spring with the first-year students’ responsibilities steadily increasing. This allows a smooth hand off of responsibilities as the second- and third-year students move on to their clinical rotations

The Clinic Coordinator oversees the student board meetings and steps in to help each position when assistance is needed. In addition, the students in this role serve as the primary communicators when discussing clinic operations with student board members, the entire DPT Program, the community and even other physical therapy programs. In fact, we often share our model with other institutions because we truly believe in the impact a student-run model has on shaping the PT skills, mentoring skills and leadership skills of students. Our classmates recently wrote about the Pro Bono Networking Conference we organize to discuss pro bono student care. Anyone interested in learning more about our student-run model should e-mail [email protected] or [email protected].