So you’ve decided that you want to pursue the field of physical therapy. You’re either currently an undergraduate student taking the pre-requisite classes, a post grad student like me, or somewhere in between. What’s the next step might you ask? It’s earning observation hours!
One of the necessary requirements in applying to physical therapy school is to earn observation hours at a local clinic, hospital etc. By volunteering at a clinic and earning observation hours, not only are you exposing yourself in the physical therapy environment, but you are also learning about the different reasons why a person is going through physical therapy. This experience truly lets you know if you actually want to pursue therapy before making a serious decision.
Different schools have different parameters on the amount of hours you need to have to apply. For example, the PT program at my alma mater, University of the Pacific, requires that applicants have at least 50 outpatient hours and 25 inpatient hours. It is important to note that this is the minimum. It is always great to earn more hours and may even work to your advantage, especially if those hours are dispersed in a variety of clinical settings. Outpatient observation hours are typically done at an outpatient physical therapy clinic. These clinics tend to focus on rehab after surgery (i.e after the patient is discharged from the hospital), orthopedic rehab, and preventative care. In contrast, inpatient observation hours are usually done at a hospital. At an inpatient rehab facility, patients tend to receive PT right after surgery. In inpatient, there is normally intensive 24 hour therapy services and medical management, which is overseen by a doctor specializing in rehabilitative medicine. Depending on the facility, the list of services offered can range from wound care to amputation rehab.
Now that you have background on what observation hours are, why it is needed, and the different types, I’ll go into detail on exactly how to start getting these hours. This is absolutely from my own experience and I understand that it is different for everyone. Here is my process on how I got my observation hours…
1. Join your university’s Pre-PT Club
I know, I’ve said this before, but I honestly believe that joining your campus’s Pre-PT Club is a good starting point. If, for some reason, your school doesn’t have Pre-PT Club, then start one or join the virtual club, PreDPT Society (shameless plug, I can’t help it haha). By participating in organizations like this, you are broadening your networking opportunities and developing new skills, all while creating new friends! I don’t know about you, but I find it extremely helpful to know a community that understands what I’m going through. Overall, it makes the college experience so much more enjoyable!
I distinctly remember one of the Pre-PT Club meetings I attended was a guest speaking event. The guest speaker was the clinic director of a local outpatient PT clinic. The clinic director mostly talked about his journey going from undergrad to PT school and even left his business card so that we could contact him about starting observation hours. I took advantage of his offer and contacted the clinic the following day. Little did I know that I would later become an aide at the same clinic, 8 months after.
2. Reach out to local different clinics and hospitals
There are many ways to go about this. The easiest is to visit the clinic website and email the clinic director about the possibility of doing observation hours there. The email should be concise and include your name and the reason why you are contacting him/her, in this case, it is to start observation hours. For example, if I were to contact another clinic about doing hours, the email would look like this:
Dear [name of Clinic Director,
Hello, my name is Samantha Jamosmos. I am currently a graduate of the University of the Pacific and I am interested in doing observation hours at your clinic. Please let me know if this is possible, thank you!
Now obviously you would change the information based on your needs, but this is a rough draft of what your email could look like. If email is not an option, calling is another great way to contact the clinic. It’s honestly the same approach as the email and it could be faster than waiting for an email reply back from the clinic director. Just remember to introduce yourself and inquire about observation hours and you’ll be fine!
While the two approaches mentioned are appropriate for outpatient settings, contacting hospitals about getting inpatient hours is a little different. In my experience, it the process of getting inpatient observation hours took longer than getting outpatient hours. I think this is mostly due to the high volume of students needing to get hours and the limited amount of spaces hospitals can accommodate students. Because of this, it is common to be put on a waiting list for observation hours at a hospital. I ended up being on a waiting list for almost a year before I got the chance to observe in a hospital setting.
The approach I found to be most effective in contacting hospitals was to call the physical therapy department directly and speak with an employee about observation hours. I found this way more effective than email because emails tend to get lost. Overall, the main advice I have to give regarding inpatient hours is to contact multiple hospitals and contact them early. It doesn’t really matter what grade you are in when you start doing observation hours, as long as you observe a physical therapist that is licensed and can verify the hours, you should be fine.
3. Meet with the clinic director/coordinator & schedule times to observe
This may happen before you start observing or you may even meet the clinic director or preceptor on your first day of observing. It will depend on the clinic or hospital. In my case, I set up a meeting with the director before I started observing. Basically what went down was I introduced myself, talked about school, and got a tour of the clinic. It was really quick, probably around 15 minutes. From there, we settled on my observation schedule on Monday and Friday afternoon.
Coming back to my inpatient observation experience, I was indeed on the waiting list for about 11 months before I stepped foot into the hospital. This particular hospital had a high volume of students wanting to observe and only allowed each student to log in 25 hours. This was why it took me a while to get my inpatient hours. During this time, I was just working on my outpatient hours. When it was finally my turn on the waitlist, My I met the therapist I would observe on my first day. They were really flexible about working around my schedule and I was able to come in and observe on Sunday mornings.
So that is my guide on how to start observation hours in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Looking back on my experience, the main points that I wanted to reemphasize are not being afraid to take initiative and contacting clinics and hospitals early.
Learning to be comfortable to speak with people you haven’t met before and advocating for yourself is important not only for this profession, but for life in general. Physical therapy is also a very social profession as much as it is medical, so developing social skills is imperative. I’ll admit that before I started doing observation hours, I was a very shy person and somewhat uncomfortable with talking to new people. Since my observing days and working at a clinic, I can proudly say that my social skills have improved greatly and I have no problem with making conversation with all types of people.
As for contacting clinics and hospitals early, it just helps in terms of scheduling and knowing if you need to contact more places to get hours. I started observing during my junior year in college and kind of regret not starting my hours earlier because I had so much more time in my underclassman years. Obviously there is nothing I can do to change that and I’m content with how everything turned out. Ultimately, if you can, start your observation hours early because it’ll make your life easier and may even open more opportunities to observe in different settings.
So that’s my guide on how to start observing in both inpatient and outpatient settings. I hope you found this helpful and as always, if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’d love to help in any way I can! For those currently observing or already have your hours done, what was your experience like? What is something you would do differently? Please let me know in the comments below!
Until next time,