Creative Collaborative Care

A Bradley physical therapy student helps a client practice walking at the University's Clinic for Fitness and Function. (Photo by Duane Zehr)

Matt Hawkins
March 21, 2016

Amidst giant exercise balls, steps and balance devices in Bradley’s physical therapy lab, Doctor of Physical Therapy students hover over people living with chronic neurological conditions. Conversations offer encouragement and new ideas to sharpen patients’ motor skills.

This is a regular scene in the lab, which doubles as home to Bradley’s new PT Clinic for Fitness and Function. Each week, students and faculty provide free care to community members who can’t afford ongoing treatment.

The clinic is the dream of PT faculty Dr. Melissa Peterson and Dr. Brenda Pratt. Developed out of a study they conducted with University of Illinois faculty, it serves a community need as it provides unique experiential learning and research opportunities to students.

“People with neurological conditions have restricted lives,” Peterson said. “They really need ongoing exercise to maintain gains they made. Our clients have goals beyond basic functionality that insurance won’t pay for, and this is an opportunity to achieve those.”

Clients, who range from toddlers to octogenarians, meet weekly with pairs of students. Many clients come with long-term hopes of regaining quality-of-life abilities such as running, doing housework or playing disc golf.

“Being paired with classmates gives us a lot of creative energy,” said third-year student Heather Hudson. “This gives us the freedom to try things we might not otherwise have space and time to try.”

Pro bono individualized care emphasizes long-term results. The approach fosters relationships while it focuses on clients’ physical gains. Student-client relationships develop, as do relationships among clients who compare progress reports as they work through treatments.

“I like that we don’t have to worry about reimbursement,” second-year student Aziz Ali said. “This takes us to the purity of physical therapy. We focus on helping patients and work together to help them.”

The clinic is also unique because it targets neurological conditions students may not regularly see in their 35 weeks of clinicals. In traditional settings, students may work with a dozen clients a day and only see a few neurological conditions.

In contrast, Bradley students see multiple cases of similar conditions in the clinic. This shows them how neurological conditions affect clients differently.

“No two spinal cord issues are the same,” Ali said. “The variety is fantastic and helps us diversify how we approach patients because we don’t know what we’ll see on a daily basis.”

In its first semester, the clinic rotated 48 graduate students through eight-week experiences. Several undergraduates also participated.

Eventually, Bradley faculty will use the clinic to research the impact of pro bono therapy. Future studies will examine how patients’ life goals are affected by ongoing care and how students’ career goals are affected by exposure to the setting.