Most schools require some observation hours, which was definitely my favorite part about the entire application process. It’s not boring and you’re not just standing in the corner staring at the physical therapist and patient (although this does happen some of the time). Observing allows you to get to know a physical therapist, learn about the career field, and figure out if this is really something you want to pursue!
This guide will give a general overview of the process and answer some commonly asked questions. I will also give a summary of my experiences in the 5 settings in which I observed.
What are observation hours?
Observation hours include paid and volunteer time spent with a physical therapist. They may be directly treating a patient, or you may be filing paperwork or cleaning treatment areas – it all counts as long as a PT is there to witness!
How many hours do I need, and where should I observe?
Each school will have their own requirements. Check the school’s website, PTCAS website for each school, or the PTCAS Observation Hours Summary. You must meet the requirement for each school in order to be considered for acceptance – this is not a just a recommended guideline, so double check what each school requires. Some are more specific than others in that they require a certain number of hours in outpatient and inpatient.
I recommend that you observe in an inpatient setting, whether or not it is required by the school. Additionally, observe in as many settings as possible! I observed 5 settings, and one of my interviewers mentioned how great it was that I was able to see several different types of therapy. Try to get 20-40 hours in different settings, rather than getting 200 hours in just one. You’ll be exposed to different patient populations, different treatment techniques, you’ll get a better idea of what you’re interested in, and you will have more physical therapists to potentially write you a letter of recommendation.
It’s never too late to start observing! I started about a year before I applied, and I observed between 2-20 hours a week, depending on how many places I observed and whether I was taking classes at the same time. As long as you meet the minimum for each school, you’re all set! More hours does not equal better, so if you already meet the minimum, try to diversify the type of settings rather than racking up a bunch of hours in just one or two settings.
Here are the possible settings to choose from on PTCAS. You can choose more than one for each facility you observed at (for example, if the acute hospital also had home health that you observed).
- Acute Care Hospital
- Rehabilitation Hospital
- Skilled Nursing Facility
- Outpatient Orthopedics
- Occupational Health
- Home Health
- Other Inpatient Facility
- Other Outpatient Facility (Hippotherapy comes to mind)
Here are the possible populations observed to choose from on PTCAS. You can choose more than one for each facility you observed at.
- General Orthopedics
- Women’s Health
How do I find someone to observe?
- In person – Few people will show up in person, so you’ll stand out as someone who really wants to volunteer. Just simply walk up to the front desk and introduce yourself, and ask if they would let you observe some treatments.
- Call – If showing up in person is not possible, calling is great too! Expect to call several places before you find somewhere to observe.
- Email – This is another option, but it is likely that the email will be ignored. I emailed 10-15 places to observe, and got one positive response! It is possible, but plan on sending many emails before you get a chance.
- Volunteer department – Hospitals generally require you to sign up through the volunteer department. Busier hospitals may have a waiting list, so try to get your inpatient hours as early as possible. I contacted the rehab department directly because the volunteering department did not include physical therapy. I also began volunteering at my university’s health center by signing up through the volunteer department and they placed me in the physical therapy clinic.
- Use your connections – Ask your friends and family if they know any physical therapists that would be great to shadow.
- Look up your school district – School therapy is less popular for observation hours, so use Google to your advantage to find an email or phone number.
What should I do while observing?
This depends on the setting, and you can read the details of my experiences below. I watched treatments and asked thoughtful questions either during the treatment or right after, depending on what felt like a better time to ask. For example, in orthopedics, I just asked questions during the treatment because I usually talked to the patient and physical therapist, so it didn’t feel out of place to ask. In the hospital, it worked out better for me to ask questions when walking to another patient’s room, or when they were typing up the paperwork on the computer between patients. Just be yourself and be engaged in the experience! Notice how the PT talks to and interacts with patients, what questions they ask and how and why they treat something a certain way. Ask what they like and dislike about their job, other places they have worked, how much paperwork they are required to do, their thoughts on the future of physical therapy, etc.
Depending on the setting, you may be able to be more active in the treatments. If you’re an aide, you may perform ultrasound or apply heat packs, or if you’re volunteering you might follow behind a patient with a wheelchair. Try to be as active and helpful as possible!
Between patients, there are a lot of things you can do. I folded laundry, cleaned treatment rooms, organized foam rollers, cleaned suction cups, talked to the pt aides, read through the pt aide binder, jotted down notes on the treatments I just saw, or talked to other patients that were in the room. If you’re unsure of what to do, just ask! I struggled with keeping myself busy in outpatient orthopedics because I did not observe a majority of the time, but it became easier over time.
How do I report all my hours?
PTCAS has an article on how to submit your hours. I recorded all my hours on an Excel spreadsheet (more details on this blog post), so I knew exactly how many hours I had, what settings I observed in, and what dates I observed. Even if you are required to write down the hours at the hospital or facility where you observed, it was really helpful to have it written down on my laptop too. When you apply, you will fill out all of this information, including the name of the physical therapist and the facility. If your school requires verification of these hours, you will also need an email for each physical therapist, or you can upload a paper signature.
Where did I observe?
- Outpatient Orthopedics (65 hours) – I volunteered at my school’s health center, so I mostly saw students and some employees of the university. I liked that I was able to observe with 5-6 different physical therapists and I saw different injuries. However, I didn’t like how I saw a lot of ankle, knee, and shoulder injuries, and the PT aides used heat packs, e-stim, and ultrasound on a lot of patients. Most of my time was spent cleaning and organizing the clinic instead of observing the therapists, so this was my least favorite of the experiences.
- Aquatics/Pediatrics (36 hours) – I volunteered through a community nonprofit which worked with children with special needs. We met once a week for 1-2 hours, and each volunteer was paired up with one child. We said hello to our kids, helped them into the pool, did a group activity, then worked with our kid alone or in small groups, and then ended on another group activity. Some kids were able to swim in the deeper end, but most of them were held in our arms as we moved them through the water and they played with toys and the other kids.
My first semester, I was paired with two girls who were wheelchair-bound as they had a steel rod in their back, and they used a feeding tube so I had to be careful to make sure that water did not get in their mouths (which is pretty difficult because other kids LOVE splashing!). It was tough to work with them because they had limited mobility and they weren’t able to speak, so I tried my best to communicate with facial expressions and hand movements.
The following semester, I switched between several different kids, but the one I was with most often was diagnosed with dwarfism. He was able to walk and talked a little bit, and he was really shy around the other kids. He was one of the youngest and had trouble swimming without his dad for the first month or so, but gradually became more confident and was playing with other kids and going underwater. It was so cool to see his progress and be a part of it.
- Fitness/Wellness (81 hours) – I observed here for 3-4 hours a week for one school year, but I really loved coming here! This PT converted the master bedroom in her house into a clinic, and she ran her cash-based business out of her house. I lit candles and made sure the music stayed on during sessions, so that was really different than every other setting (in a good way!). I love that she had longer sessions (1.5 hours for evaluations and 1 hour for treatments), and she incorporated a lot of yoga into the treatments. I saw a lot of different patients, and I saw one or two patients often enough to see them progress and get to know about their lives. Many patients were there for chronic conditions, which was different from the other settings I saw in which patients were recovering from surgery or recent injuries. There was a lot of downtime between patients, so I had a lot of time to ask her questions and play with her adorable 1 year old baby.
- Inpatient Acute Hospital (39 hours) – I volunteered here on my winter break for 2 weeks. I showed up in the morning when all the PT’s and aides were in the rehab room. We were all given a printout of all the patients that needed to be seen, everyone updated the group on how the previous day’s treatments went for each patient, and then everyone decided which area of the hospital they wanted to go. There were 4-5 different areas of the hospital, and I only saw patients who were recovering from surgery, broken a bone, or were older and had difficulty moving. A majority of the patients were over 70 years old because this was more of a rehabilitation hospital, so a lot of treatments were in the bed or were gait training down the hallway. I got food tables out of the way, assisted with putting on gait belts, and followed patients with the wheelchair or oxygen tank. I had a lot of time to ask questions between patients, and I remember asking a lot about medical diseases, diagnoses, and abbreviations that were on the patient printouts. I saw how the therapists typed up their paperwork, and one of the aides walked me through the electronic medical record and asked what I would write down for one of the patients. I don’t think I would like to work at this hospital in particular, but I’m interested in hospitals with pediatrics and more settings than this one.
- Inpatient Rehabilitation Center (15 hours) – I only spent 15 hours here because I already had over 200 hours of observing. This setting was cool because the occupational therapists worked with the physical therapists, so I was able to observe both careers and learn about the differences between the two. I walked with the therapist to the patient’s room, watched patient transfers, and saw treatments in the main gym area. There were 6-10 patients in the gym at a time, so there was always something to watch. I walked around to different therapists when I saw something I wanted to observe and introduced myself to each patient. Each patient shares a room with another and some had been there for months, so they really liked talking about their lives and were generally easy to talk to. The actual treatments themselves were not too interesting, but I loved talking to each person and spending a lot of time with them.