Experiential Learning Introduces PT Students to Range of Patients, Health-Care Settings

By Purnell T. Cropper | August 9, 2011

By Michelle Tooker ’07,’10M

“Through experiential learning, students grow as people and as PT students. An expansion of the person occurs and their worldview grows. They conceptualize how things work and discover their place in the world,” says Karen Sawyer, Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy.

Arcadia’s Doctor of Physical Therapy students participate in pro-bono experiential learning, which gives them integrative, real-world experience and prepares them to enter the field. They interact with patients and clients from various cultural backgrounds and expand their understanding of health, wellness, fitness and physical therapist practice.

Students spend time in four settings—the Dan Aaron Stay Fit Clinic, West Oak Lane Senior Center, Mercy Circle of Care Physical Therapy Clinic for the Uninsured and Foulkeways, a continuing care retirement community. Each location offers a different experience, giving both first- and second-year students an opportunity to broaden their skills and perspectives. Sawyer oversees the Foulkeways and international pro-bono programs.

First Year: Local Sites

Arcadia is unique in that all D.P.T. students are required to complete experiential learning programs at two sites during their first year of the program—one at West Oak Lane and one at Foulkeways. This helps to prepare students for their clinicals and allows them to become comfortable working with patients.

At West Oak Lane, an urban senior center day program serving primarily African American clients, students spend six weeks assisting with a chair aerobics group exercise class. They lead exercise routines, give voluntary blood-pressure readings, and talk with participants to discover what motivates them to stay active.

“The experience enriches students’ compassion and empathy and gives them exposure to the field,” says Dr. Kris von Nieda, Visiting Associate Professor of Physical Therapy, who oversees the West Oak Lane and Mercy sites. “In many respects, the classroom is artificial because students are not interacting with real patients. So we can talk about what an interview is, but it doesn’t help unless students actually do an interview. It leads them into the process gradually.”

“A lot of the participants at West Oak Lane previously had PT for some sort of injury or chronic condition, so working with them just made me remember that therapy doesn’t stop when PT ends…. It must continue,” says Jamie Bradford ’12. “When I become a practicing physical therapist, I want to remember that education is paramount in our therapy sessions.”

“Developing personal relationships with the wonderful people at West Oak Lane has been very rewarding,” says Adrienne Beauduy ’13. “It is something I look forward to every week.”

The participants look forward to the weekly sessions. When the program started, only a handful of people attended, but as word got out, there are now 15-20 people at each session.

At Foulkeways, a continuing care retirement community in Montgomery County, students assist residents with their individualized exercise programs in the fitness center, where the facility’s fitness director provides oversight.

“In both settings, the goal is to expose students to active, older adults and to non-traditional aspects of physical therapy, such as health promotion and wellness,” says Sawyer. “These experiential learning opportunities expand classroom knowledge into real-world settings and serve to precede the more formal clinical education experiences.”

Second Year: Pro Bono Community Service

In the second year of the program, students participate in two community service pro-bono experiences. During the summer between their first and second year, they go to Mercy and in the fall they work in Arcadia’s Dan Aaron Stay Fit Clinic.

At Mercy, students offer pro-bono services as part of a comprehensive treatment program to patients who have impairments, functional limitations or changes in function and health status and lack the means to pay for therapy. Students work in pairs for the initial exam and then work one-on-one with patients on follow-up. This marks their first opportunity to work independently with patients under the supervision of Arcadia faculty.

“Students gain experience that helps to prepare them for their clinicals, exposes them to different socioeconomic conditions and ethnicities, and allows them to develop a level of comfort in working with patients,” says von Nieda.

“At Mercy, the ability to use the skills that we have learned with the under-insured was a fulfilling experience. Giving people a chance be healthy who normally don’t get that opportunity because of cost is always beneficial,” says Bradford.

Generally, students see two to four patients per visit. This lower caseload allows for longer one-on-one patient interaction and clinical problem solving, giving students a chance to develop as professionals.

The program also includes an overlap week in which finishing students have the responsibility for educating incoming students.

“This is a nice feature of the program,” notes Sawyer. “It is an important lesson in terms of good physical therapist practice to do hand-off communication and care.”

At Stay Fit, students work with people who want to keep active but cannot go to a regular gym because of slowness, stiffness, and balance or safety issues. Participants exercise in a group under the direction of the PT students who are directly supervised by two physical therapists with experience in the treatment of individuals with neurologic diseases.

“Students work with patients with chronic, progressive neurologic diseases, getting exposure to those issues and hands-on practice managing those issues,” says Janet Readinger, Assistant Professor of Physical Therapy and Academic Coordinator of Clinical Education, who helps run the Dan Aaron Stay Fit Clinic experience. “They get to know what it is like from the patient’s perspective.”

Students are overwhelmingly positive about the assignment and provide many comments on their newfound understanding of how individuals and family members cope with a chronic disease.

“Working in the Stay Fit clinic has given me the opportunity to learn about people with Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis outside of the classroom. You can only learn so much about slow movement, rigid muscles, fatigue and a resting tremor from a textbook or lecture,” says Jennifer Gulla ’12. “To see it in person helps you understand these patients’ movement problems in a completely different way.  It makes your textbook come alive. It puts a face to what you are learning.”

“What surprised me most is how independent a lot of these people are. My role turned as one from teacher to one of learner very quickly,” says Robert Wise ’12.

Like the other sites, the participants also greatly appreciate the relationships they build with the students. “The participants that come to Stay Fit love the camaraderie working with the students and their energy,” says Sawyer. “The participants get to tell all their old war stories again, and they get a new batch of students every six weeks.”

“The participants enjoyed the conversations and interactions and it provided a perfect conduit for breaking down a common clinician-patient barrier,” adds Wise.

“Seeing the students’ interacting with patients gives me a sense of how they’ll do when they are in their clinicals,” says Readinger, who notes that the experiences are successful at preparing students for their clinicals and their futures as physical therapists. “It’s nice to see their comfort level change and their confidence grow in working with patients.”