“After observing just one treatment session, I knew that physical therapy was the career I wanted to pursue.”
So you think you want to become a physical therapist huh? Well, to really know if this is the right field for you, you have to shadow!
Today’s topic foris OBSERVATION HOURS!
In this post, I will give a general overview of what observation hours are, share my personal experience, and give some general “do’s and don’ts”.
What are observation hours?
Observation hours are hours spent observing/shadowing a physical therapist. These can be volunteer or paid (if you are a PT tech/aide), and you could be observing direct patient care, or helping out around the facility (i.e. doing laundry, cleaning treatment tables, or doing paperwork). Here are the setting types that PTCAS lists on their site:
- Acute Care Hospital
- Rehabilitation/Subacute Rehabilitation Facility
- Extended Care Facility/Nursing Home/Skilled Nursing Facility
- Free-standing Physical therapy or Hospital Outpatient Clinic
- Industrial/Occupational Health
- Home Health
Most PTCAS programs have observation hour requirements, whether that be 50 hours or 100 hours. Some programs even have setting requirements, so make sure that you are checking the program’s website/PTCAS site to ensure you meet their requirements (schools are usually pretty straight-forward and specific in regard to this information).
How do I find observation experiences?
Google is a great place to start when looking for shadowing experiences. Once you’ve found a clinic you’d like to shadow at, you can either call, email, or visit. I would suggest visiting the clinic if possible, as this will show that you are very interested in volunteering. If you are unable to visit, then calling or emailing will be totally fine! I honestly emailed every setting I observed at, but I made sure to tell them a little about myself, and my goals for the future. In addition, you can ask classmates or family members if they know of any places/physical therapists that you could shadow. Luckily, a friend of mine applied to PT school a cycle before me + shared the places she shadowed at, so I ended up securing spots at two of them!
The first time I shadowed a physical therapist was in high school. It was my senior year, and my health professions class required us to shadow a health-care provider for 10 hours. I had recently taken a sports medicine class earlier in the school year that I thoroughly enjoyed, so I was interested in both athletic training and physical therapy. At the time, my mom worked in an orthopedic physical therapy clinic, so she helped me secure a shadowing experience. After observing just one treatment session, I knew that physical therapy was the career I wanted to pursue.
My program didn’t have an observation hour or setting requirement, but they recommended that you have at least 100 hours in a variety of settings. To explore the many avenues of physical therapy, I shadowed in:
- Outpatient Orthopedics (30 hours): The patient population varied (teenagers, adults, and geriatrics). Interventions implemented included manual manipulation, gait training, lower and upper extremity strengthening exercises, and balance re-education exercises. The diagnoses seen were predominantly orthopedic and neuromuscular (mainly post-surgical rehabilitation and/or chronic pain).
- Inpatient Rehabilitation (30 hours): The patient population was primarily geriatric. Interventions implemented included manual manipulation, gait training, transfer training, stair training, lower and upper extremity strengthening exercises, balance re-education exercises, bed mobility training, and Hoyer lift transfer training. I observed the administration of outcome measures including the Berg Balance Test and the Timed Up and Go (TUG). The diagnoses seen were predominantly neurologic, including Traumatic Brain Injury, Spinal Cord Injury, Stroke, Amputation, and Multiple Sclerosis.
- Skilled Nursing/Extended-Care/Home Health (30 hours): The patient population was geriatric. Interventions implemented included manual manipulation, gait training, transfer training, stair training, lower and upper extremity strengthening exercises, balance re-education exercises, bed mobility training, Hoyer transfer training, and ultrasound. I observed the administration of outcome measures including the Berg Balance Test, the Wong-Baker Pain Scale, the Timed Up and Go (TUG), and the Tinetti Balance and Gait Assessment. The diagnoses seen were predominantly orthopedic and neuromuscular (mainly post-surgical rehabilitation and/or chronic pain).
- Outpatient Pediatrics (48 hours): The patient population was pediatric. Interventions implemented included manual manipulation, stair training, breathing training, motor learning, movement/mobility training, balance/coordination activities, the use of assistive technology, orthotics, developmental, recreational, and play therapy, and ultrasound. The diagnoses seen were predominately orthopedic, genetic, metabolic, endocrine, developmental-behavioral, and neurodevelopmental, including Stroke, Autism, Hemiplegia, Ventriculomegaly, Hypotonia, and Ataxia.
I accumulated 138 hours total, with at least 30 hours in each setting. I would recommend that you try to observe in at least 4-5 settings, and get around 20-30 hours in each (unless the program has a more specific requirement). This will look way better than having say 100-200 hours in one setting. I also did most of my shadowing during the school year, observing 3-4 hours a day after classes. If this is too much for you to handle, try to set up shadowing experiences over the summer.
- Do keep track of each setting you observe at, the dates you were there, the therapist’s name + contact information, along with the types of patients, injuries, tests, and interventions you see (like I listed above). Bring a notebook with you when you shadow, so that you can write these things down as you go. You can create an excel spreadsheet later as well. Doing this will help you out tremendously when it comes time to fill out your applications, as PTCAS requires some of this information. Most programs require verification of your hours as well, so the therapist will need to submit a signature online, or you can upload a paper signature.
- Do ask questions! You are there to learn, and the therapist is there to help. Plus, this will show your interest in the field, and could potentially lead to a recommendation letter (which you will eventually need) if you form a good relationship!
- Do try to find graduates of your prospective program to shadow! This is a great way to network, and learn more about the program.
- Do arrive on time!
- Do adhere to the facility’s dress code.
- Do let the facility know (if possible) if you have to miss a day.
- Do try your best to make a good impression. Interact with patients (without interfering with treatment of course), talk to therapists + other employees, help out as much as possible, and SMILE!
- Don’t have your phone out while observing. Only use it if it is an emergency, and be sure to notify the therapist if you need to take a phone call or text.
- Don’t discuss patient information with anyone other than the therapist (HIPAA!).
- Don’t wait till the last minute to set up observation experiences. With the large number of students interested in physical therapy, settings fill up quickly (especially inpatient settings), so seek out opportunities early! For example, I inquired about shadowing at my local hospital in June, and there wasn’t an open spot until November.