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Arguments for students working with patients with COVID-19

Feb 11, 2021

ACAPT is aware that many member institutions are facing difficult choices about DPT students being in the clinical education environment where they may be treating patients who have tested positive for COVID. In some cases, academic institutions have implemented a rule that students in health professions programs including physical therapy are not allowed to work with patients who have tested positive for COVID.

Concurrently, some health care facilities have implemented requirements that students must work with patients who have tested positive for COVID during clinical education because, otherwise, the facilities cannot manage their workflow. Some PT programs have successfully received exemptions from their academic institutions rules on seeing patients who have tested positive for COVID based on various arguments. Whether a program should seek such an exemption or not is a decision best left to the judgment of the program's faculty in consultation with their university leadership.

While ACAPT can collate information to frame the issue and provide discussion points, matters of this nature fall under the legal purview of the clinical education contract between the program/institution and the clinical facility. For programs that wish to seek an exemption to their parent institution rules, ACAPT provides the following examples of arguments that have been used with some success.

  • Physical Therapists are essential health care workers and are needed as members of the health care team in order to provide the best possible care to our patients in a interprofessional environment. Physical therapists are fully trained and competent in the use of personal protective equipment. Physical therapists routinely work in hospital settings treating patients with a variety of communicable diseases.

  • COVID-19 is principally a respiratory disease. Physical therapists are highly trained in the understanding of cardiac and respiratory function and in the treatment of cardiac and respiratory diseases. Optimal recovery from COVID-19, as with all severe respiratory distress syndromes, requires a carefully monitored and systematic return to physical activity. Physical therapists are the experts in the health care system for this vital aspect of the treatment of patients who have tested positive for COVID.

  • Physical therapy students complete all of their required clinical education during their time in the doctorate of physical therapy educational program and are prepared for full licensure without the need for additional clinical education upon graduation. Because the COVID-19 pandemic is still underway and the vast majority of the population has not been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, hospitalizations of a proportion of our population due to COVID-19 infection is likely to continue at a substantial rate for a year or more.

    Immediately following graduation and obtaining licensure, our current DPT students will be expected and often required to be able to competently manage patients who have tested positive for COVID. Experience working with these patients during their clinical education is necessary to prepare them to serve their patients upon graduation.
  • Based on the high prevalence of persons with COVID-19 in hospital setting, hospitals are beginning to refuse to accept students for clinical education experiences if the schools do not authorize the students to work with patients who have tested positive for COVID. Because clinical education is a necessary part of the DPT degree, students who cannot complete their clinical education requirements cannot graduate.

    There is an accreditation requirement that students must be prepared to work in the settings where physical therapists are likely to be employed. Hospitals account for approximately one third of all employment for physical therapists. Based on specific program requirements, programs may not be able to waive clinical experiences in the acute care setting where persons with COVID-19 are likely to be treated. Therefore, the practical impact of not allowing students to work with patients who have tested positive for COVID could cause a delay in their ability to complete graduation requirements, which would likely lead to consequences for student debt and program completion rates.

ACAPT hopes that programs who wish to seek permission for their students to work in clinical settings with patients who have tested positive for COVID will find these arguments useful.


ACAPT Board of Directors

Mark Reinking, President, ACAPT, Regis University
Michael Sheldon, Vice President, ACAPT, University of New England
Emmanuel John, Secretary, ACAPT, Chapman University
Julia Chevan, Treasurer, ACAPT, Springfield College
Peter Altenburger, Director, ACAPT, Indiana University
Marie Johanson, Director, ACAPT, Emory University
John Buford, Director, ACAPT, The Ohio State University
Scott Davis, Director, ACAPT, Marshall University
Mary Dockter, Director, ACAPT, University of Mary

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