BOV grant helps DPT get unique pro bono clinic get off the ground

by Chuck Gordon

Giving free treatments to members of the public was already a popular side gig among Wingate physical therapy students. But a rebooted version of previous pro bono clinics goes a step further: The latest free clinic is now officially part of the program’s curriculum, and it heavily involves first-year students.

“There are many PT programs that are doing an ICE (integrated clinical experience) program,” says Wingate DPT Director Dr. Karen Friel. “But I don’t know of any program that is doing it as five mandatory courses in the curriculum. It really sets us apart.”

With help from a $3,000 grant from Wingate’s Board of Visitors, the Wingate Rehabilitation and Performance (WRAP) clinic began serving uninsured and underinsured people in the Burnside-Dalton Building on June 7. Every Monday that the DPT program is in session, two one-hour WRAP sessions are held: at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.

Before Covid-19 shut down the country in March of 2020, Wingate DPT ran a pair of free clinics: a pro bono clinic and a neurowellness offering. When the pandemic hit, both original clinics went on hiatus. During that pause, Friel and Tyler Shultz, assistant professor and director of clinical operations for Wingate DPT, began discussing ways to improve them, and they hit upon the idea of a single clinic at which students would be required to work.

The most recent grant helped make the new venture a reality by providing enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, students and patients. It will also provide equipment to introduce a telehealth element into the clinic setup by the end of the summer.

A pair of Wingate students help a patient in a wheelchair

The department rearranged the academic schedule so that no classes would be taught on Monday afternoons, placing all the attention on WRAP for that time period.

Students working at the clinic help patients who have a range of PT needs. Some visitors are recovering from a stroke. Others have torn an Achilles tendon or are rehabbing from a bad sprain. In just their second week of PT school, students find themselves cheerfully encouraging patients while helping them maneuver through cones, stretch their hamstrings or strengthen their rotator cuff.

In many cases, the students’ current coursework reflects the types of patients that are being scheduled for the clinic at that time.

“Our focus this summer is making clinical connections with classroom information,” Shultz says. “We have several patients who have spinal-cord injuries, who are post-stroke, who have Parkinson’s disease. So while they’re learning about the areas of the brain that control speech or control motor movement in class, they’ll be seeing patients who have injuries to those same areas of the brain in the clinic.”

The real-life application makes the classroom work more effective. Faculty members oversee all sessions, helping students make the connection between their classroom lectures and the conditions of the patients they’re treating.

“It’s one thing to hear it from one of our professors and think, Oh, that sort of makes sense,” says Kirk Jones, a first-year student from Mississippi, “but as soon as you get into the clinic you can actually see it. I think it’s that little bit of hands-on activity that cements it even further in your mind.”

The WRAP clinic provides a more realistic setting for students to learn in. Previous clinics held at Wingate were more open-ended, with patients often coming in week after week, sometimes for years on end. “We constantly had a waiting list,” Shultz says. “If we don’t discharge patients, we never get new patients in.”

With WRAP, patients will have a therapy plan with defined goals. They’ll be “discharged” after maximizing their level of function, a situation much like the clinical experiences students will encounter when they begin working after graduation.

Telehealth option

Wingate professor Tyler Shultz demonstrates an ankle technique

Telehealth became much more popular during the pandemic, and Shultz believes at least a few WRAP patients will take advantage of the option, once the equipment arrives and is installed later this summer. Many potential clinic patients don’t have the resources to make use of the telehealth option, but those who do will provide some bonus experience for Wingate students. Because of the pandemic, more and more Wingate DPT students are finding themselves working with patients virtually once they go out on their clinical rotations.

“We didn’t have an opportunity to teach our students how to treat in that telehealth model,” Shultz says. “With this grant, we hope to be able to introduce telehealth in the clinic so it won’t be shocking when they go out on a rotation and have a telehealth patient.”

Patients learn about the clinic through word of mouth or are referred by Atrium Health Union and, most notably, by Community Health Services of Union County, a free clinic in Monroe for which Wingate University provides a full-time physician assistant. Shultz is hoping that CHS provides a pipeline of clients. “If their patients do need PT, they don’t really have a referral outlet for them,” he says. “We’re hoping to build that relationship up and be their go-to for any patients that need rehab.”

It’s the proverbial “win-win” scenario: Wingate’s students get hands-on training to complement their in-class education, and often-overlooked members of the community get free physical therapy.

“There are a lot of people in the area that are un- and under-insured, and they don’t have other options,” Friel says. “The fact that Wingate is able to provide those other options to them for their care, it’s a game-changer for the community. It’s a game-changer for the institution also.”

July 13, 2021