Physical therapy students gain real-world skills while helping patients in need.
For the last two years, doctor of physical therapy (DPT) student Vincentia Thompson has helped to meet a community need for underserved Philadelphians. She works at the Jefferson Pro Bono Clinic located at Jefferson Methodist Hospital. Here, in 30-to-60-minute sessions, she assesses patients for various physical ailments, provides treatment and explains exercises or activities to do at home.
Some will come back for several weeks or months in a row, depending on the level of attention they need or severity of injury or illness. All of this comes at no cost to patients, who are typically uninsured or underinsured.
“From the first day they walk in to when they leave, you can see the difference,” Thompson says. “We’re impacting their lives. They wouldn’t be able to get the care otherwise.”
At the same time, she says she has gained valuable real-world experience working with patients with back, neck, knee, hip or shoulder pain, as well as difficulties with balance or walking. Thompson currently serves in the National Guard and hopes to be a physical therapist in the Army after graduation.
“I know I will be able to apply everything I learned in the future,” Thompson says.
This dual purpose of benefiting both the community and DPT students is why physical therapy associate professor Dr. Louis Hunter started the Jefferson Pro Bono Clinic in fall 2016. The clinic is a collaborative community health initiative with administration and faculty in the Jefferson College of Rehabilitation Sciences and clinical team leaders in Jefferson Rehabilitation.
Working there cultivates empathy and allows students to dive into a side of healthcare they might not witness in a traditional clinic setting, says Dr. Stephanie Muth, associate professor in the DPT program. She’s actively involved in the clinic and also leads pro bono physical therapy services at other locations.
“They have to be more creative about solving problems,” she says. “For example, they may see an undocumented immigrant working 60 hours a week with an overuse injury. Their solution can’t be, ‘Well, stop doing what you’re doing.’ That’s not an option. It forces them to see physical therapy problems through different perspectives.”
With patients who can’t just take off to recover, DPT student Daniel Moeller focuses on activity modification. He advises them on changes to how they walk, sit and sleep, as well as posture correction.
“As a student, it’s important to practice, practice, practice, and I’m always looking for opportunities to improve,” he says, noting the clinic has strengthened his examination, evaluation and treatment skills and techniques. “I see this as an opportunity to practice and, importantly, to serve others.”
Through the clinic, students can expand on what they’ve learned in the classroom and how to handle more complex cases, Dr. Hunter says. Most patients speak Spanish, Indonesian, French, Chinese, Korean or French Creole rather than English as their primary language. In these situations, students often rely on the hospital’s translation services or an iPad app with live support. (Sometimes, English-speaking family members or friends accompany the patient.)
“Students really get to know the people in their community,” Dr. Hunter says. “Who are they? Why do they need skilled PT services? Students appreciate this part of the curriculum.”
As part of a required second-year course, all physical therapy students participate in the clinic, which currently sees around 10 patients over two nights a week. (The clinic saw about 20 patients per week pre-pandemic.)
The Jefferson DPT student-run organization, Hands of Hope, is part of the team that runs the clinic and manages physical therapy students interested in volunteering beyond the required class.
Both Thompson and Moeller serve as officers for Hands of Hope, and they say the experience of working hands-on with patients and professional healthcare providers will help them excel in their careers. Faculty, Jefferson Rehabilitation physical therapists or residents in the Jefferson Physical Therapy Orthopedic Residency Program supervise each session and offer guidance as needed.
Students may see an undocumented immigrant working 60 hours a week with an overuse injury. Their solution can’t be, ‘Well, stop doing what you’re doing.’ That’s not an option. It forces them to see physical therapy problems through different perspectives. –Dr. Stephanie Muth
“They walk us through if we have any questions, clear up confusion and guide the treatment session if we get stuck,” says Moeller of this valuable insight. “I thoroughly enjoy every time I go there.”
Thompson agrees, noting the strong sense of pride she has in the work. “We’re helping them to become more functional so they can go back to their day-to-day lives,” she says. “It shows how much Jefferson cares.”
Receiving physical therapy without insurance can be difficult, if not near impossible, Dr. Muth explains. Many go without it as a result.
“If you don’t have prescription coverage, you can just go to the pharmacy and pay out of pocket for medicine,” she says. “It’s harder to get rehabilitation services without insurance. Not a lot of places would take an out-of-pocket pay, and if they do, the cost would be outrageous.”
Patients contact the clinic directly for an appointment, or they’re steered there by a few referral sources, most commonly the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s city health centers, Jefferson Methodist Hospital and the Stephen Klein Wellness Center.
The clinic serves as a safe environment for everyone to receive care to improve their daily lives, Dr. Hunter stresses.
“Philly is a big city with a lot of folks at or below poverty, and we have a large refugee and immigrant population,” Dr. Muth adds. “People don’t have access to the healthcare system that many of us have the privilege of having. With the Jefferson Pro Bono Clinic, our students serve them while learning. That synergy is really rewarding. We’re doing our best to meet a community need, but we’re also producing more empathetic, more caring, more creative physical therapists.”