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OTD student proving up to the challenge of starting free clinic

By Luanne Williams

Leah Ronner knows the value of hands-on experience. After earning her undergraduate degree in exercise science and before being accepted into Wingate’s Doctor of Occupational Therapy program, she worked for four years as a patient-mobility technician at a level I trauma hospital.

“It was an awesome experience,” Ronner says. She felt the same way about her OTD level II fieldwork – first in a rural outpatient clinic in Wyoming in the summer of 2021 and then last fall  at Frye Regional Medical Center in Hickory. And she’s determined to help Wingate OT students of the future put what they’re learning in the classroom into practice as soon as possible. 

That’s part of what motivated her to take the lead in launching a student-run free OT clinic at the University, a clinic that began seeing underinsured and uninsured patients last month.

“I want to create more opportunities for students to have hands-on learning,” Ronner says. “I am loving what I am doing and my decision to make this my capstone project.”

In their final semester at Wingate, occupational therapy students must carry out a project of their own creation that gives them in-depth experience in one or more of the following areas: clinical practice skills, research skills, administration, leadership, program and policy development, advocacy, education, and theory development.

Ronner’s work to start a clinic ticks virtually every box. For the first two weeks of the semester, she focused on assessing the need for a student-run free clinic (SRFC), meeting with occupational therapy professors to make sure the endeavor would meet the program’s academic standards and working with them to determine who the clinic would serve, where it would be located, and other logistics. She’s worked on creating client waiver forms and researched best practices of other student-run free  clinics, including the successful Wingate Rehabilitation and Performance (WRAP) clinic, which began serving clients last June.

“Our physical therapy professors have been great, allowing me to shadow them,” Ronner says. “I also got to do an integrated PT/OT lab with the students. I loved it. And PT has been generous to share their clients with us.”

Like the WRAP clinic, Ronner expects the OT clinic, which will run once a week for the rest of the spring semester, to eventually become an integrated clinical experience required by the OT curriculum. She also envisions having students at various skill levels working side-by-side. “Older students doing the treatment, younger students taking vitals and learning,” she says.

“It will be kind of daunting to new students who haven’t done level II fieldwork,” Ronner admits, but she’s confident they will rise to the challenge.

“At the end of each week, I plan to evaluate the SRFC with supervising faculty and make changes as needed,” she says. She’ll continue to meet regularly with Dr. Reeti Douglas, the OTD capstone coordinator, with faculty advisor Dr. Wynnet Sinclair and with Dr. Daniella Hauser, her site mentor.

She’s also planning open labs for students to ask questions, practice their intervention ideas, and offer feedback. As time goes on, to help measure the impact of working at the clinic, she’ll survey students to find out how it has affected their confidence in delivering therapy services. 

Finally, she’ll pull together all the procedures and practices being developed in the clinic and make them part of an SRFC manual that will provide the University’s OTD faculty with guidance for ensuring the clinic’s longevity and making sure it offers a foundation for future students to build on.

“The manual will include the legal and ethical processes required for starting an SRFC, processes and flow of the clinic, assignment ideas, and all the supporting evidence-based research that guided my decisions,” Ronner explains.

Influencing the future of Wingate OTD

Ronner finds the breadth of her capstone both formidable and exhilarating. 

“I feel overwhelmed, but it’s a good overwhelmed,” Ronner says. “It’s just because there are so many moving parts and pieces – creating clinic policies, client recruitment, applying for a grant, creating clinic forms, presenting to students, and so on. I love a bit of a challenge. And I also love working with students. I really enjoy the environment.”

She says OT faculty members have helped her “reel it in and consider what is possible to accomplish in a semester.”

“Dr. Douglas tells us to come to her with suggestions and she’ll help us navigate what is feasible in 14 weeks,” Ronner says, “so I can pop into her office and say, ‘This is where I am. Is this doable?’”

That support from and collaboration with faculty is exactly what Ronner expected from Wingate’s OTD program after she pursued a slot in its inaugural class, and she hasn’t been disappointed.

“I came to Wingate for an interview and was blown away by the faculty. I didn’t get that community family feeling elsewhere,” Ronner says. “I said then, ‘This is where I want to be.’”

She’s also gotten support from the University’s Board of Visitors, which recently awarded the clinic a $1,000 grant for supplies.

Joining a brand new program that still had to earn its accreditation, Ronner knew she and her classmates would be guinea pigs in a way, but she also hoped that they would be able to help shape the program by giving frequent feedback and input, which she says has definitely been the case.

“Dr. Sweetman has surveyed us and made changes as a result, so we see that we’re influencing the program’s future,” Ronner says. She sees her capstone not only as a way to meet the needs of underserved clients in the community, but as a gift of sorts to future students.

“Through the development of the clinic, having earlier hands-on experience will make Wingate’s program more competitive,” she says. “I’m really hoping to help make it a powerhouse, having potential students see this as an awesome opportunity that isn’t a part of every OT school.”

Ronner is one of 32 OTD candidates who will cross the Commencement stage on May 18.

April 5, 2022