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Physical Therapy Clinicals: 3 Things You MUST Do Before Choosing Yours

As a student, physical therapy clinicals are an exciting time in your journey through PT school. To this point, you’ve spent countless hours learning about various diagnoses, evaluative techniques, and treatment interventions. You’ve rummaged through pages of information and flipped through hundreds of PowerPoint slides. The amount of caffeine you have consumed and the hours of sleep you’ve lost is likely concerning to you. And now – the time has finally come to put all of that hard work and knowledge to the test with actual patients! Scary, right?

But before that can happen, you have to choose your clinical site. And with that comes many tough questions: Do I want to work in this type of setting? What is the primary patient population? Are the people that work there open and kind to students? These are a few questions you will probably find yourself asking.

But in my opinion, the most important question to ask is:

“Will this particular clinical experience help me develop into the clinician that I want to be?”

To help answer this question, you have to gather as much information as you can about each potential physical therapy clinical site. Understanding what you may be getting yourself into is very helpful and primes your mind for success. So, what are some things you should be aware of? What information is good, or even critical to know, prior to choosing your specific clinical affiliation?

Here are 3 solid pieces of advice:

Note: Some DPT programs utilize a lottery or first-come first-served system when placing their students. Some flat-out don’t allow you the luxury of choosing your clinical site. Sorry, that’s just how it is. Nevertheless, the information listed below may still prove to be helpful. 

1. Vet the physical location

This point is a lot more complex than you may think. The geographical location of a clinical site provides volumes of useful information. Google and Google Maps are useful for this. Find out what area the facility is in and ask yourself questions like:

  • Is it near a retirement community (and therefore mostly geriatric patients)?
  • A booming metropolitan area (potentially a young and athletic crowd)?
  • Is it attached to a hospital (potentially more post-op patient referrals and interacting with physicians)?

It’s good to consider your personal needs as well.

  • Is it in an expensive or affordable area of town?
  • Are there suitable living accommodations within walking distance, or will you be forced into a lengthy daily commute?

For the active student (practice what you preach!), find out where the local gyms and parks are. Also, consider checking for supermarkets and farmer’s markets. These latter points are surprisingly game-changers and can mean the difference between a miserable clinical experience and a smooth one.

For living accommodations, some clinics offer free or discounted housing. This tends to be an exception rather than the rule so don’t rely too heavily on this happening. Still worth finding out though! 

2. Look closely at the setting and company

This somewhat feeds off of the previous point.

  • Does the setting of the clinic (outpatient, inpatient, acute, etc) coincide with the type of work you want to be involved with after you graduate?
  • What about its specialties (geriatrics, pediatrics, pelvic health, etc)?

Think about what interests you.

  • Do you want to work in an acute care/inpatient facility interacting with many disciplines?
  • Are you more into the sports performance aspect and working with predominantly athletes?

Where do your passions in this field lie and once again ask yourself: Will this particular clinical experience help me develop into the clinician that I want to be?

Think about the company as well.

  • Do they generally have a good or bad reputation for patient care?
  • Are you interested in working for them specifically?

Many people are offered positions at sites at which they’ve interned; so if you’re really big on a particular company, it may be in your best interest to get an internship with them!

If you don’t know what area of physical therapy entices you, don’t feel pressured. Internships are also an opportunity for you to figure that out. And even then, some come away from them still unsure. Totally normal!

3. Consider the experience of previous SPTs

Speaking to someone who has been to the same physical therapy clinical might be the most valuable move you can make. Many DPT programs hold long-standing contracts with clinics to which they send their students. Therefore, chances are someone (likely in the class ahead of you) has already been there.

Reach out to them. Ask them what their experience was like.

  • What type of patients did they see and with what volume?
  • What about their Clinical Instructor (CI)? You may be a person that would feel more comfortable with more (or less) supervision – so you’ll want to know more about the CI(s) of the clinic.
  • Were the CI friendly and accommodating or cold and unavailable?
  • Was the clinic, as a whole, contributory to the learning experience of the student? This is key information that significantly affects your experience.

You may also want to know some other things, such as additional opportunities made available to the student.

  • Were there regular in-service presentations on current research/topics in the field?
  • What about opportunities to observe surgical procedures?

Interactions with other healthcare professionals (either in-person or on the phone)? Exposure to unique treatment interventions? All great to know. Have a long conversation with the previous student intern over some lunch (your treat) and you’ll be that much closer to knowing if this clinic is a good fit for you.

Do you remember how to perform manual muscle tests? How the patient should be positioned? Where the resistance should be placed? Check out the following playlist for a quick and painless refresher! 

A quick run-down

To put it together nicely, these are the questions you want answered before selecting your clinical:

  • What setting is it? Outpatient physical therapy?  An orthopedic clinical affiliation? Inpatient, acute, or home health?
  • What does the patient population primarily consist of?
  • How long are work days? What’s the weekly schedule? Weekends?
  • How many patients are seen hourly (volume)?
  • How much time is given for evaluations? For regular treatment sessions?
  • What documentation system is used? Paper or electronic-based?
  • What is the culture of the clinic?
  • Is the clinic evidence-based?
  • Does the clinic use a broad or narrow treatment philosophy?
  • Is the clinic friendly to students?
  • What other opportunities are made available to the student?
  • Will you get to observe surgical procedures?
  • Will you get to communicate/co-treat with other disciplines?
  • Are there in-service presentations?
  • Is there a book/research club?
  • Where are the living accommodations? How much is it?
  • Will you need to make sure to bring anything with you (clothing, bed sheets, medications)?
  • What is the weather generally like?
  • Is the area walk-friendly area or is a car a must?
  • Where are the supermarkets? Pharmacies? Emergency care?
  • Where are the local parks? Where are the gyms? Where is [fun stuff]?

And, of course, don’t forget the most important question: Will this particular clinical experience help me develop into the clinician that I want to be?

Good luck! Visit my site, EducatedPT.com, for more information to help you on your professional journey!
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About Joey Masri

Joey Masri
Joey Masri is a licensed physical therapist and strength and conditioning specialist based in Miami, FL. He received his DPT degree from the University of Miami in 2016 and is passionate about topics surrounding orthopedics, neurorehabilitation, and sports performance. He is also a co-founder of EducatedPT, an educational resource that publishes both articles and videos relevant to physical therapy and its practice. These publications can be found on the official website, www.educatedpt.com.

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