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Widener University pro bono student clinic has become an influential model nationwide

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About five years ago, Widener University in Chester, Pa., sought to determine the feasibility of a unique concept in physical therapy education -- a student-led, student-run freestanding clinic serving the local community. What's happened since then is nothing short of remarkable.

"In March 2009, a colleague and I were tasked with looking into a campus-based, pro bono student clinic," related Jill Black, PT, DPT, EdD, assistant professor and pro bono services coordinator at Widener. In conducting research on the topic, they learned about an upcoming conference in Omaha, Neb., organized by medical students and representing pro bono clinics run by medical students.

"My program director gave permission for us to attend as well as two PT students, so we put out a call for volunteers," Black continued. "When we went to this conference, I remember being so impressed by the poise and maturity of the medical students who were literally running it and talking about the clinics they operated. I have to admit, at the time I wondered if pulling off that kind of operation was unique to medical students, or whether PT students could handle it too."

Now, Black looks back and wonders how she ever doubted.

"Because our two volunteer students came home from that conference and said, 'We want to run this here. We can run it and have classmates who will want to do it too.' So we gave them the chance."

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The Chester Community Physical Therapy Clinic is housed in an old stone home just off the campus of Widener University in Chester, Pa. The clinic, operated by Widener students and faculty, provides free services to the community. Opposite page above, Regina Goodrich is flanked by students Jonathan Bellizio, Nicole Rayson, adjunct professor Antoinette Patterson, PT, DPT, and Nicole Gezzi. Bottom right, William Wier works with Gezzi and Rayson. Photos by Kyle Kielinski

Founding

The Chester Community Physical Therapy Clinic officially opened its doors in September 2009, and within a couple years, Widener PT students themselves were going out to national conferences and presenting their work.

"When I went along one time and watched them, I thought, 'They're just like the medical students I saw before,'" related Black. "It wasn't that they weren't capable of it. They just hadn't been offered the opportunity. Give them the chance to do this and they rise to the occasion, take ownership and share it with others. So I realized, it wasn't the phenomenon of being a medical student -- it was the phenomenon of being excited and proud to be part of something like this."

Since its founding, the clinic has treated more than 200 clients for a total of over 2,500 visits. Furthermore, 100 percent of Widener's current PT students contribute to treatment, while about 20 percent hold student board positions coordinating the operation. This clinic has also directly influenced the launch or growth of several other student-led clinics at PT programs throughout the country. National interest in the student-led model inspired Widener faculty and students to commence three new initiatives over the past year-and-a-half:

The Physical Therapy Pro Bono Network (an annual event on Widener's campus for programs interested in learning more about starting or growing a PT clinic).

The Physical Therapy Pro Bono National Honor Society (recognizing PT students for pro-bono service).

Student-Run Physical Therapy Pro Bono Clinic Webinars (administered by Widener students and faculty to help other PT programs start a clinic or troubleshoot problems with their existing clinic).

Networking

The pro bono networking event, first held in March 2013, has already exceeded the wildest expectations of organizers.

"At the start of last year, we just began kicking around the idea of doing a pilot conference for other PT schools in the Philadelphia area that might be interested in the clinic," explained Nicole Nardone, a Widener PT student who just completed her second year and also holds the title of outcomes coordinator for the clinic. "But we received an overwhelming response even though we threw it together within about six weeks."

That response included approximately 80 people attending from 20 schools across the country.

"So for the 2014 event, we tried to hit the ground running and took a whole year to plan," Nardone continued. "We got a little better organized, made it a more interactive day with breakout sessions, widespread networking opportunities, and forums to discuss and troubleshoot, learning about different models used by other clinics. Now through this pro bono network, we can keep a continual stream of open communication with each other throughout the year."

In fact, this year's event included five virtual attendees through live streaming.

"So we had people from all over the country listening and watching if they couldn't attend in person, and that was really cool," said Nardone.

Some of the geographically diverse schools that have participated in Widener networking events include the University of Kentucky, Wayne State University in Michigan, Elon University in North Carolina and Husson University in Maine.

Nardone's classmate Brian Kennedy, the clinic coordinator, has also embraced spreading this concept nationwide. Among his efforts are upgrading the clinic's website and attending a number of different conferences to emphasize networking and information sharing.

"When our website (www.chestercommunitypt.com) launched a few years ago, it was pretty basic, with a flyer showing the address and hours so people could contact us," Kennedy told ADVANCE. "Since we really wanted to enhance our national presence, and I have some background in web and graphic design, I added pages with information about our ­students as well as our full mission statement."

In a further effort to boost the profile of the clinic, Widener PT students have taken the lead in establishing an annual 5K race on campus, with all proceeds benefiting community outreach.

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SPREADING THE WORD: A key component of the mission of the Chester Community Physical Therapy Clinic is teaching other PT programs to start or grow their own pro bono clinics. At the Physical Therapy Pro Bono Network, an annual event at Widener University in Chester, Pa., students and educators from around the country gather to share ideas. Among the approximately 80 attendees in March were groups from Qunnipiac University and Bellarmine University. Photos by Kyle Kielinski

Growing

To match its growing influence, the clinic has also experienced significant physical growth over the past five years.

"At the beginning of the first year, we were only open two nights a week," explained Black. "By the end of that year, we started opening three nights a week, and a half-year later it became four nights a week. Another year after that, we were bursting at the seams physically, and had to expand. The clinic is located in an old home just off campus and initially we only had a 750-square-foot room. So we renovated and expanded further into the building, basically doubling our space, which doubled our capacity to see clients."

In its current form, the clinic is open Monday through Thursday nearly year-round, with treatments provided between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

"Students are expected to arrive around 4:00 so they can prepare, pull up the client's chart and get a feel for what's going on," explained Black. "Then they usually document after treatment until around 7:00."

Widener enrolls 50 new PT students every year, and all 150 students in the program gain hands-on experience by working in the clinic, typically about 4-6 times each ­semester per person.

"It didn't start out that way, with every student helping at the clinic," Black related. "But several students who stepped into the clinic later in their curriculum would say it was such a fabulous learning experience, they wish they had gotten involved earlier. So over time, we decided this was too great an opportunity and everybody should experience the value of practicing what they're learning."

Now on any given night, there are six to seven students providing treatment for eight to 10 clients, under the direction of two PT supervisors who are typically Widener alumni. Each client can expect an hour of one-on-one treatment with a student. In some cases because of no-shows and cancellations, two students will team up to work with one patient for that hour. The response to such an attentive level of care has been overwhelmingly positive.

"We've gotten feedback from quite a few patients through surveys," concluded Nardone. "One woman actually said she was so happy her insurance ran out because of the individualized care she's able to get with us. Patients are one-on-one with a student who's really trying to help them, so it's personal and they respect that. Many of them love that we're learning on the job as well. They just appreciate the environment because it's very relaxed and concentrated on them."

With such a dedicated networking focus at Widener, there could soon be many more patients nationwide feeling the same way. 

Brian W. Ferrie is on staff at ADVANCE. Contact: bferrie@advanceweb.com

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