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Encouraging writing & deep thinking in physical therapy education

Nov 30, 2022

What’s the value of integrating humanities in physical therapy education? 

One benefit is encouraging students to think deeply about their lived experience, society, culture, academic training and its impact on their future career.   This type of contemplation can foster more thoughtful PT professionals who can better serve their patients and community. 

To stimulate deep thinking, PT students write essays as part of the annual Physical Therapy Student Essay Contest, sponsored by ACAPT's Consortium of Humanities, Ethics & Professionalism (CHEP) and the Journal of Humanities in Rehabilitation (JHR). 

Joseph Rivera Photo

In 2022, the contest asked  students to reflect on the  pandemic shift to remote learning and how it affected their education and image of themselves as PTs.  The first place contest recipient, Joseph Rivera, shares more about his experience below and you can read his full essay: Finding voice & vulnerability through virtual learning in the fall issue of JHR.  "I enjoyed answering the questions below," says Joseph. "It's been very helpful to think about how far I've come."  Read more from the 2022 essay award recipients.

Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) and Physical Therapist Assistant students can learn more about this year's essay prompt and submission process here.


What was it like for you to use narrative writing to reflect on your PT experience and the essay contest prompt? 

It was challenging to condense my thoughts and still convey my experiences, but it also helped me to distill what was more important. I hadn’t really thought about how I would frame my takeaways and writing forced me to cut away the chaff and think about the things I learned and how I would apply them going forward.

It also came at an opportune time for me; I wrote the essay at the end of my first semester and it was a good reminder of where my PT journey had started and how much I’d experienced in such a short time.

How do you think incorporating the humanities can enhance your DPT education?

I majored in sociology for undergrad; I’m a huge proponent of the humanities. All physical therapy students receive the same training in sciences via our didactic material, but majoring in the humanities gives me an edge in some regards.

  • I’m a firm believer that PT is a partnership, and all the knowledge of interventions and treatment won’t matter if we can’t get our patients motivated and excited to work with us.
  • We speak about the biopsychosocial model but often it’s too easy to focus on the “bio” part. The humanities help us to meet our patients as full people and not just a list of impairments or restrictions. 

You mention in your essay how remote learning made you more conscious of habits,  intentions, and insecurities and a need to make oneself visible.

What do you think about remote learning led to this increased awareness and concern? 

Remote learning often involves letting people into your home, metaphorically speaking. You sit in your living room, or bedroom, or home office, and these places are normally private places reserved for you and your family or roommates. The environment definitely changes things; for instance, the flow of conversation and factors of lag/unmuting require more deliberate choices about when and how to share. 

In addition to the transition to a remote learning environment, what else contributed to making the initial conversations about identity and privilege with your DPT classmates more substantive and meaningful compared to previous conversations? 

I believe that we all wanted to make a good impression on each other and we all deeply cared about the work we were doing. Physical therapy is a profession that people often get into because they’ve personally seen the effect that it can make in people’s lives. It’s important to them and they take their responsibilities seriously as a result. This investment in our coursework carried over to our interactions with each other. 

In your essay you state that "building a rapport with urgency, focus, and intention is what matters" regardless of whether it is an in-person or virtual environment.

What does it look like to build rapport this way in a virtual environment, whether it be in an virtual educational or telehealth setting? 

It’s important to be honest. We have to address the limitations of the medium but also the strengths. In the clinic, I’ve learned to be comfortable with silence and pauses in dialogue while taking patient histories; I believe this helps make the interaction feel like a conversation rather than an interview. The same thing happens in virtual environments when we have to avoid talking over each other due to lag. 

What do you think have been the greatest benefits to experiencing some of your education in a hybrid environment?

What do you think have been the greatest losses? 

It was very helpful to have breakout rooms in a lot of our online classes; it gave us a way to quietly focus on solving problems or discussing questions without any concerns about sharing space. The smaller breakout discussions were especially helpful for courses like kinesiology where it was helpful to analyze videos together or share our free body diagrams. 

We’re completely in person now but the reality is that the 2020 and 2021 hybrid courses were also helpful to people that contracted COVID or any other illness; student learning went uninterrupted.

Virtual education makes it hard to physically demonstrate some ideas or actions. I don’t consider this a major loss as we eventually got clarification in labs, which were in person. I also have heard from several classmates that they have an easier time taking notes and focusing on lectures when they’re sitting in a classroom rather than their apartments.

While I think it’s easier to build one-on-one relationships with breakout rooms, there is something to be said for the cohesive feeling that comes from sitting in a lecture hall with all of your classmates. I know that I at least feel much more as if I’m part of a team than I generally do in virtual classes. 

What role do you think virtual learning and clinical care has in the future? 

I think there’s a huge potential to reach larger audiences. Immunocompromised patients wouldn’t necessarily need to come in if they didn’t feel comfortable, but could still receive treatment. Sick patients could still receive treatment. What happens in flu season? Either patients won’t come in because they’re sick or they’ll come in and potentially infect others. This could be avoided in many cases with virtual clinic care and also applies to learning.

Furthermore, the truth is that we don’t all have the same 24 hours. If we can reach people with transportation challenges or childcare needs or simply incredibly busy schedules, we can make a real difference in people’s lives by meeting them where they are with virtual care. Our goals for PT are patient directed; we may select the path but the goals have to match client desires. Treatment itself should be the same way. 

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