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The Evolution of a Clinical Educator

Just 20 seemingly short years ago, I started the journey to becoming a physical therapist with part-time jobs as a certified nursing technician/restorative nursing aide, work-study student athletic trainer, and physical therapy technician in an outpatient clinic. Through a comical turn of fate, three years later, I met my professional mentor. One day at work, the owner of a local gym was walking on crutches wearing a knee brace and protecting her shoulder following injuries sustained skiing. With the grand plan of applying to PT school at the University of Kentucky, I embraced my future profession and proclaimed, “You should see a physical therapist.” Glenda gave me a puzzled look, pleasantly stating, “I AM a physical therapist.” A short time later, my foot was removed from my mouth, and I had met a dedicated professional who would eventually offer me not one, but two jobs. She would become one of the main influences of my early professional career.

During the early years at two private practice outpatient orthopedic clinics in the state of Kentucky, my fledgling physical therapy career blossomed. During those initial 9.5 years of practice, I first had the thought of a physical therapist as a professional sponge. Close observation of my three mentors during that time, allowed me to absorb not only their knowledge and clinical skills, but also traits of professionalism, dedication, and empathy that I admired in each of them. Though not a mirror image of any of these ladies, I attempted to merge their positive traits as I became my own unique professional. During those first years, I shared that idea with several PT and PTA students.

We are lucky that our profession provides us with the opportunity to practice in a variety of settings. Our didactic and clinical educations, as well as our post-graduate experiences, allow us to grow skills that are translatable across settings. As a new graduate, I NEVER thought I would work in acute care. Imagine my surprise when after 9.5 years of practice, I humbly interviewed for a job at a level-one trauma center eventually becoming a therapist specializing in the intensive care unit (ICU). Although previously hosting an occasional student, my new setting afforded me the opportunity to regularly serve as a clinical instructor for students of all levels from mentoring observers in the hospital to guest lecturing in the classroom; from academic lab assistant to clinical instructor for both initial and terminal clinical experiences including integrated clinicals in 1:1, 2:1 and 3:1 models. These experiences and the skills, absorbed from my program instructors, mentors, co-workers, other healthcare colleagues and even my students, allowed me to introduce students and other professionals to the many facets of physical therapy.

We are equally lucky that our profession promotes development as a “life-long learner.” The term is a little cliché but we, as physical therapists, truly are life-long learners…and teachers even if we never step foot in a classroom. We teach and learn from our patients, our referring providers, our colleagues…and our students. I, for one, have always been excited and proud to teach the next generation of physical therapists. As I prepare to attend my third Education Leadership Conference (ELC) in Columbus, OH I can’t help but look back on the themes in clinical education I have learned more about over the past two years. During my first ELC, I was blown away by the changes that appear on the horizon for clinical education, the barriers that the profession is working to overcome, and the dedication of physical therapy educators in listening to the clinician’s perspective regarding clinical education. Discussions regarding the most appropriate clinical model, preparing generalists vs. specialists, professionalism, mentoring, preparedness, clinical residencies, and a variety of strategies for supporting clinical sites are both exciting and anxiety inducing.

Just as there is no “one-size fits all” approach to treating patients, there is no similar approach to clinical education. Our clinical sites, students, instructors, site opportunities, and patients vary tremendously. Are there different challenges in a rural outpatient clinical education site versus an urban, teaching hospital? How do we ensure competency when working with patients on ambulatory ECMO (something that didn’t happen 20 years ago when I was in physical therapy school), ICU survivors, or other state-of-the art treatments? We all are professionals with great pride in what we do. Each year the scope of physical therapy seems to grow a little more. Clinical, research, and civic demands increase. The expectations placed on us, by not only administrators and colleagues but also ourselves, seem to rise exponentially. To meet those demands, self-reflection on our clinical practices and keen interest in our profession is necessary. A sponge soaks up everything-positive and negative. I challenge myself daily to not only magnify positive attributes, but also to limit those negative habits that my students and co-workers might absorb. Our profession must do that also. I look forward to what the next chapter of physical therapy clinical education brings.

Angie Henning, PT, MSPT, Cert MDT

BS Biology Centre College; BHSc and MSPT University of Kentucky

Cardiothoracic Service line PT, UK HealthCare


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