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The Doctor of Physical Therapy program graduated the Class of 2020 on Jan. 8 during a virtual ceremony.
The Doctor of Physical Therapy program graduated the Class of 2020 on Jan. 8 during a virtual ceremony.

Physical therapy graduation virtual

Photo by Ashley Barnas and courtesy of Physical Therapy Clinic

Doctoral students and faculty overcome coronavirus barriers to get to finish

The top-ranked University of Delaware Department of Physical Therapy graduated its Class of 2020 Doctor of Physical Therapy students on Friday, Jan. 8. With the country still in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, it was no surprise the celebration was held virtually via Zoom. 

More surprising is that the DPT students were able to graduate at all. 

Safety restrictions put in place as a result of the pandemic upended life for everyone, but especially the third-year DPT students who are required to spend most of their final year working with patients. Students who planned full-time clinical rotations saw those opportunities disappear because of shutdowns and other protocols implemented to safeguard patients. 

But thanks to the ingenuity of faculty and clinical instructors in the University of Delaware Physical Therapy Clinic, every member of the DPT Class of 2020 secured all the patient care needed to graduate. Most of that was working in-person with patients, but some of those critical hours involved students sitting in front of their laptops and virtually treating patients who were visiting a physical therapy clinic.

The unlikely scenario allowed DPT students to complete their rotations at more than half a dozen external sites around the country during the spring. Once the UD PT Clinic reopened in June, students also were able to Zoom into the clinic on the STAR Campus to make up for any patient hours cut short as a result of COVID-related prohibitions. 

“Not having these students graduate on time wasn't an option for us,” said Airelle Hunter-Giordano, associate director of clinical services in the UD Physical Therapy Clinic and assistant professor in the PT program.

At the University of Delaware Physical Therapy Clinic, patients worked with third-year Doctor of Physical Therapy students who showed up virtually for their appointment.
At the University of Delaware Physical Therapy Clinic, patients worked with third-year Doctor of Physical Therapy students who showed up virtually for their appointment.

For a hands-on profession like physical therapy, it might seem unusual to receive care from someone who isn’t physically present, but DPT students — as well as patients — embraced the virtual pilot, even if it meant multiple laptops had to be positioned around a patient during a visit. 

Tara Manal, associate professor and director of clinical services and residency training, said clinicians and DPT students even managed to have a little fun in some of the virtual programs. At one site, the clinic laptop that showed the face of the UD PT student actually had a shirt placed over it and a nametag added so patients would be able to see him better. 

“The students weren't passive learners. It was almost as if the clinical instructors were just their hands,” said Eric Stewart, assistant professor and part of the clinical education team in the physical therapy department. “They would say to the instructor, ‘Put your hand here and see what this feels like’ and to the patient, ‘Can you move your arm like this? Can you move your leg like that?’ They really were engaged in the treatment as if they were there.” 

Stewart said the virtual clinical rotation was developed as a pilot similar to other virtual experiences already created to keep healthcare professionals engaged during the pandemic. The idea came from medical students who were able to participate in hospital rounds because one member of the healthcare team used a camera to record the patient interactions. 

Laura Schmitt, who recently retired as assistant professor on the clinical education team, said students learned how to communicate more actively and efficiently as part of the virtual experience. 

“There were several times I looked out and the patient would be talking and nobody was around them,” Schmitt said. “They were just talking, having a great time, connecting with the student. The patients really felt a value and that this person was invested in them getting them better.”

Recent DPT graduate Rachel Knobel completed virtual clinical hours at the UD PT Clinic and also through an external site. Although grateful to eventually transition to her in-person rotation at the UD clinic, she said the virtual rotation made her a stronger communicator and enhanced her critical thinking skills. 

“I enjoyed the experience because it allowed me more time to think through patient cases,” said Knobel. “In my previous clinic experiences, I have had to think through patient cases while completing manual techniques, exercises and documentation.” 

Creating this opportunity for students required a lot of work from faculty, clinicians and staff at the clinic, Stewart said. In addition to coordinating student schedules with patient visits, laptops and other accessories also had to be moved around almost constantly so students could interact with patients. 

Despite the challenges, Stewart said, “I never once got a complaint from a student that said, ‘They seem like they don't want me there’ or ‘You can tell I'm a burden.’ I think that speaks volumes to the clinicians, who were really doing a huge amount of work once it got organized.”

Third year DPT student Nick Gruwell was dressed up for his virtual clinical rotation.
Third year DPT student Nick Gruwell was dressed up for his virtual clinical rotation.

Overall, the experience has uniquely shaped the Class of 2020 for the current challenges in healthcare, said Darcy Reisman, chair of the Department of Physical Therapy. 

“I believe it has made them more ready than ever to tackle whatever life has in store, both personally and professionally,” Reisman said. “This past year they have shown patience, empathy, resilience, creativity and complete determination to get out into the world and make a difference.”

DPT grad Samantha Bachman said the experience taught her new ways to communicate with patients and get creative with treatment. 

“I believe it has given me a great perspective as a clinician to think outside of the box and go above and beyond to ensure a patient receives necessary care,” said Bachman, adding that she is now comfortable with telehealth, a desirable skill during this time. “This situation has challenged our field in terms of treatment, teaching and learning, but I am so thankful to have been a part of this learning process that prepared me to graduate.” 

The experience has also changed the program, Hunter-Giordano said. As a result of the success of the virtual clinical rotation, there are plans to add virtual time for students in future semesters to reduce student stress and encourage more open communication. That wouldn’t have happened without the challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“It definitely took a village. It was like all hands on deck,” Schmitt said. “That's one thing about UDPT - everybody is willing to get their hands dirty.”

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