How are Physical Therapy Observation Hours and Clinical Education Hours Different?

Choosing a career is an important decision that could change your life and open the doors to hundreds of opportunities.

If you have already chosen one, you probably did thorough research regarding where is the best place to study it and the requirements needed to apply. Also, you are probably thinking of the physical therapy observation hours requirements.

However, the information gathered by searching on the Internet or asking around can sometimes be confusing, especially if your choice is physical therapy.

Firstly, Physical Therapy students must undergo several observation hours and clinical education hours to accomplish the end goal of achieving their licensure. However, these hours are not the same, and it is easy to misunderstand what they are all about.

Don’t worry, we have you covered. We will explain in this article the main differences between Physical Therapy Observation Hours and Clinical Education ones. Along the way, we will clarify any doubts you may have before applying to a Physical Therapy school.

What are Physical Therapy Observation Hours?

Physical therapy observation hours are the first step you need to make to begin your journey through this career. It is your first (introduction) to Physical Therapy. Additionally, it allows  (you to understand what it is like to be a physical therapist).

Observation hours consist of spending a set amount of hours with a professional Physical Therapist while  (he or she) takes care of  (their) patients. This gives you a grasp of the workflow, treatments, and patient management. But, during this time, you will be watching or shadowing the practitioner exclusively, without actively (performing) the treatment.

Moreover, the number of hours needed to apply to a school widely vary  and can range from only 10 up to 200. Therefore, you must investigate the amount required by your desired school before (trying to figure out how to get your) Physical Therapy Observation Hours.

On the other hand, observation hours help you to determine whether Physical Therapy is something you would like to study or not. It also prevents you from finding out (this career is not for you, after you have already started school and started paying tuition!)

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What do participants do during PT Observation Hours?

The participant’s role is mainly to observe what the therapists do and how they treat patients.

Observers are allowed to ask questions to both the therapist and the patient (with the patients consent!) about a variety of things including: what the patients condition is, what treatment the patient is receiving and why this treatment will benefit this particular patient. The student may also discuss with the PT’s and local staff regarding how that PT got to where they are today and their personal experience/findings working in the field.

During in person observation hours, the student might assist the PT by cleaning tables, taking out the trash, folding towels and getting exercise equipment out for the patient such as dumbbells or therabands. However, the observer may not perform hands on treatment!

The most important skill that any healthcare professional can learn is communication. Many observers may learn this skill early on when shadowing therapists—by chatting with patients during their session. While this is an important skill to have, it can be a challenge for students to learn how to effectively communicate with patients of varying ages, interests or backgrounds. Fortunately, participating in observation hours allows early experience in this role to help the student learn the skills of “small talk.”

While online observation hours do not require the communication aspect, it is still very important that students are able to communicate effectively. So practice with your neighbors, people in your classes that you don’t normally talk to, teachers or individuals in public when walking your dog! It might seem a bit odd or uncomfortable at first, but when you become a physical therapist, talking to strangers is going to become the norm, and something you will want to be good at! 

Special information about PT Observation Hours

Although the idea of observation hours is straightforward, there are a few things to consider.

  • There are no evaluations or grading, as participants of the program are only observing. As a result, all they need to do is attend and pay close attention to the therapist’s work.
  • Observation hours must be completed before applying to a Physical Therapy school program. They are a requirement stated in the application process.
  • Observation hours are accumulative. Therefore, you can do them at your own pace, as there is no need to complete them all in one go. However, different programs or therapists may have their own rules and schedules.

What are Clinical Education Hours?

Unlike observation hours, Clinical Education Hours are performed (being admitted to a) Physical Therapy program.

The purpose of clinical education is to put the things students have learned in the classroom to use – performing evaluations, writing rehab plans, performing documentation, billing, etc. Depending on the program, some schools may have one or more clinical education rotations in the middle of their education (so the students can realize that what they have learned is important!) or other schools perform all of their clinical education rotations after completing all of their coursework.

This allows students to treat patients in a controlled environment. As a result, they can develop their skills as a therapist (under supervision of a licensed physical therapist, know as a clinical instructor.

This allows the SPT to take an active role in treating patients without risking the patient’s safety. Expectations for student performance varies as they progress through each clinical rotation – by the end of the first rotation students are generally expected to treat approximately 25% of the caseload of a new graduate PT; by the end of the last rotation students are expected to be able to treat 90-100% of a new graduate PT caseload.

This is a time when students are able to improve their skills, ask questions, and foster their clinical decision making skills – so when the student graduates they have accumulated enough experience to safely treat patients independently.

Special information about Clinical Education Hours

There are specific key points about Clinical Education Hours that are worth mentioning, such as:

  • Clinical Education Hours are graded. As the student is treating a patient, it is mandatory for (to meet the designed expectations for that clinical) and to pass all clinical rotations and graduate. 

  • Every student needs to (complete a minimum of 30 weeks/1,050 hours of full time clinical education experiences according to the CAPTE handbook.) Without them, they are not allowed to sit the (National) Physical Therapy Examination. Once the student passes the NPTE, they can apply for licensure in their desired stated.

  • Clinical education hours are generally unpaid (we it is a bummer!). These hours are primarily meant for learning even though the student is treating a regular caseload and typically working a normal 40 hour workweek.

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