With students in charge, pro bono physical therapy clinic thrives, aims to grow

Western Carolina University’s student-run Mountain Area Pro Bono Physical Therapy Clinic has set a goal to expand the availability of its services in 2018.

The free clinic provides services to individuals who do not have insurance coverage for physical therapy. Currently, the clinic is open from 6 until 8:30 p.m. on the first and third Wednesdays of every month, but the goal is to open on a weekly basis, a move that could become reality by next fall.

The clinic, which opened in October 2014, is operated entirely by students in WCU’s doctoral program in physical therapy, who take care of all details from ordering supplies and developing policies and procedures to treating patients and tracking individual care.

The increased frequency of operation will require additional registered clinicians to volunteer to help in oversight and advisory roles with students. “We’re looking for opportunities to grow and build on our success,” said Ashley Hyatt, assistant professor of physical therapy and program adviser. “We definitely need registered clinicians to make that happen, but we also want to attract more patients through greater awareness in the community.

“We typically see 10 people a night,” Hyatt said. “The students are truly invested in the success of these patients and improving their well-being. Students came up with a three-tiered approach for monitoring and treating patients and measuring progress ― not me or other faculty or the advisory board, but the students.”

WCU’s Mountain Area Pro Bono Physical Therapy Clinic provides free services to individuals who do not have insurance coverage for physical therapy.

It is a great way for students to practice what they are learning, she said. At the clinic, students are simultaneously involved in community engagement, fulfilling a health care need and receiving credit for service learning.

The clinic undergoes constant review and evaluation of methods and clinical operations, said Kenneth Flinchum, a senior from Mount Airy and former coordinator of the clinic. “We always look for ways to make things better. That requires collaboration and communication with everyone involved, so students, clinicians and patients can do what is best now and find ways to make things better in the future. WCU is part of the college pro bono clinic network, to share ideas and aid us with a framework for performing self-evaluation and meeting objectives,” said Flinchum.

“This is a civic exercise for the community and it’s an educational tool for us, but like any enterprise there are fundraising efforts to be undertaken and public relations ideas, so the student committees are always bouncing ideas off the faculty,” he said.

The clinic is held in Harris Regional’s Carolina West Sports Medicine Clinic on the first floor of the Health and Human Sciences Building on Little Savannah Road on WCU’s West Campus. Students work with patients for treatment to improve or restore movement function and promote healthy lifestyles and injury prevention through fitness and wellness-oriented programs.

The first year working as a student physical therapist in the clinic gives students a chance to bridge the gaps between clinical rotations as they implement course training and classroom knowledge into practice, said Zach Huey, a second-year doctoral student from Hickory and current clinic coordinator.

“You learn from your peers and from patients and assimilate those things into firsthand experience. You draw from the know-how and experience of the students ahead of you in the curriculum and the supervising clinicians, which is invaluable, and they are a bridge to meeting your goals and the patients’ needs. The pro bono clinic is service learning and community service, a chance to give back to a population of the community truly in need,” Huey said.

The most common ailment seen at the clinic is lower back pain, though other conditions such as neck, arm and shoulder injuries and even concussions are treated by the student physical therapists. Lower extremity problems, including hip, leg and knee conditions, are frequently treated as well. A range from neuromuscular, cardiovascular, as well as vestibular conditions are treated.

Students are supervised by licensed clinicians as they work with patients for treatment to improve or restore movement functions.

On a recent Wednesday evening, patients reviewed their progress since the last clinic before being treated. A cancer survivor with ambulatory challenges was patiently encouraged through a series of exercises, along with plenty of smiles upon completion of each task. Nearby, Swain County resident Delphia Birchfield watched a relative she had transported to the clinic begin his session. “This is an answered prayer,” Birchfield said. “Without it, I don’t know what kind of condition he’d be in right now, how he could cope. And he looks forward to it. You can see it with his interaction with the students. He’s treated as an individual, gets a level of attention and has made real progress. This clinic is a blessing.”

The Mountain Area Pro Bono Physical Therapy Clinic meets a need in the community by providing treatment to patients who may not have otherwise received it, said Linnea Hardin, a second-year student from Omaha, Nebraska, and co-chair of the clinic’s public relations committee.

“The pro bono clinic was one of the reasons I chose to come to WCU,” Hardin said. “Community service has always been important to me, and I knew I wanted to get involved as much as I could while in school. Serving in the clinic and on the student board has been such an incredible opportunity to meet the needs of others, while at the same time developing clinical skills and deepening my understanding of what we are learning in class.

“For us students, it is incredibly refreshing and motivating to treat patients in the clinic, especially when we come to the really stressful seasons of the program. It can be easy to let the stress of studying all the time get overwhelming and consuming, but taking a couple of hours out of an evening to serve in the clinic is immensely rewarding,” she said.

“It reminds me why I chose this field in the first place ― not just to become more knowledgeable, but to use the knowledge and skills to serve others who are in need. If we only focus on the classroom portion of this program, we miss out on opportunities to make a difference in our community,” Hardin said. “As one of the PR chairs, I’ve enjoyed being able to go out into the community and build connections with future patients and with other community service providers in Jackson County. We are very privileged to have this clinic, and I am thankful to be part of a team working to grow it even further.”

For more information about pro bono physical therapy services, go to https://www.wcu.edu/learn/departments-schools-colleges/HHS/pt/mappt-page.aspx or contact the clinic at 828-227-3527.