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Three DPT students helping a patient.
DPT students (from left to right) Emma Cabalum, Micah Simborio and Jared Dicioco examine volunteer patient Brian Danner. (Emily Campbell, WesternU)

For future health care professionals, hands-on experience and training is essential. Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) students in Western University of Health Sciences’ College of Health Sciences-Northwest (CHS-Northwest) work directly with volunteer patients through the Practical Application Labs program (PALs).

PALs is a series of five practical labs in which physical therapy students, under the direct supervision of an instructor, provide evaluations and treatment to community volunteer patients.

“The goal is to allow students to take their didactic content and immediately begin applying it to actual patient cases,” said CHS-Northwest Assistant Professor and PALs Program Director Erin McMullen, PT, DPT, NCS.

According to second-year DPT student Jared Dicioco, a typical day in the clinic begins with a review of their patient’s previous services and medical history. Review time is an opportunity for students to study their patient’s needs and research what interventions are most appropriate.

“Before and after our sessions, the entire PALs group will gather with our facilitators and present the day’s cases and any new insights we’ve gained,” Dicioco said. “This is one of my favorite parts because I can get a snippet of everyone’s session and lessons learned. Spending time and picking the brains of our facilitators, all licensed and skilled PTs, is also where I can learn the most from the session by getting their feedback and clinical pearls in the moment.”

Two men conversing in a clinic, one elderly with a grey beard and cap, the other younger in a black shirt, smiling.
DPT student Andrew Perez (right), talks with volunteer patient Donald Forbes. (Emily Campbell, WesternU)

During sessions, the groups of three to four students work closely with their facilitator to provide their patients with the best care possible. Each student is assigned a role for the day: Lead, Second Lead, Vitals, or Scribe. During the hour-long session, the Lead and Second Lead will ask questions, perform tests, collect data on the patients’ progress, and provide exercise prescription and patient education. The clinic is open to patients with a variety of needs, so students are exposed to a range of different conditions and treatment strategies. Second-year DPT student Gabriela Carey-Zuniga likes working with the quality physical therapists who serve as WesternU faculty and PALs facilitators.

“I enjoy the opportunity we get to work with different facilitators who are experienced and specialize in different specialties in physical therapy. It provides us students with ideas for future endeavors when we have facilitators who specialize in neurotherapy, scoliosis, pain science, musculoskeletal, geriatrics, and manual therapy,” said Carey-Zuniga.

Beyond providing an opportunity to immediately apply new knowledge, the clinic allows students to develop professionalism and humanism.

“The goal of the lab is to become confident with patient interactions, which allows growth of the soft skills that we can’t teach as effectively in a classroom environment,” Dr. McMullen said. “They practice professional language and communication with the patient volunteer, instructor, and their team of student physical therapists. They also learn how to bring research into the clinical setting.”

Student taking vitals of a patient.
DPT student George Jeries (right) examines volunteer patient Donald Forbes as part of the PALs program. (Emily Campbell, WesternU)

The PALs clinic also supports WesternU’s mission of community service. By offering pro bono services, the clinic aids under-insured community members and those who cannot afford conventional care.

“My favorite part of PALs and working with the volunteer patients would have to be the participants that come each week,” said second-year DPT student George Jeries. “They are so welcoming and receptive that we are all students and that we may not have all the answers but are providing them with the best care we can offer. As a student, it makes it easier to ask questions or make a mistake because I know how much they care about us and helping us learn and grow.”

Community members interested in receiving services can call the clinic at 541-259-0442 or email PALs at pals@westernu.edu. Please note, the clinic is currently at capacity for the spring 2024 term and interested volunteers will be added to the waiting list.

The application window for the 2024-25 academic school year is open until June 3, 2024. Prospective physical therapy students can learn more here.