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How To Advocate In Your First Year Of PT School

by Aaron Bryce and Sarina Karwande

What does it mean to be an advocate?

Okay, as current student physical therapists ourselves, we understand how many of you feel. We hear the term ‘advocate’ thrown around our profession and graduate school all the time. But what does it really mean to us, as students? According to Merriam-Webster (always cite your sources) an advocate is “one who supports or promotes the interests of a cause or group.” Well great, we can define the word but what does it truly mean to us? For SPTs this can mean many different things! PT student advocacy can generally be separated into two categories with one overarching goal: To better serve patients & clients!

FIRST: Patients & Clients

As health care providers it is important to advocate on behalf of our patients, right? We must ensure that patient care is . . . PATIENT CENTERED! Although, the overall goal is to improve function and optimize movement, the patient always comes first. When we let this fall through we are vulnerable to the health care system directing patient care.

SECOND: Physical Therapy Profession

Additionally, as students and clinicians, it is important to advocate on behalf of our career. Advocating for the profession of physical therapy means promoting the progress of physical therapists and continuing to shine a light on what the profession has to offer! We should aim to become heroes of the profession and help push it forward with integrity.

Why is PT student advocacy important?

Don't have tunnel vision! Exams, standardized patients and passing classes are worth some stress but do not allow your years to pass by without understanding the actual profession to which you are dedicating the rest of your life. Advocacy promotes a sense of community amongst the profession of physical therapy and gives power to our voices. The purpose of this voice is to ensure that we are being represented appropriately amongst our government officials who, in turn, are working to improve the health care delivery within the United States. Without advocacy, the voice of physical therapists can be lost and subsequently, so too is our ability to ensure progress for our patients and ourselves.

Why are SPTs in the perfect position to begin advocating?

As students, we are in a unique position: We are immersed in didactic courses. These courses focus on a variety of topics such as examination, evaluation, prognosis, and interventions yada yada yada . . . but in addition to all the fun stuff . . . we learn about the complex components of law. We learn the rules, for our respective states regarding scope of practice, how insurance works, and even how to run a business . . . this tends to be the point where many PT students start falling asleep (been there, done that) because who wants to learn about rules and regulations when you could jump into clinical experiences and finally apply your knowledge!

Fast forward: you are out in clinic and loving life . . . but for many students entering the clinic there is a noticeable discrepancy between the written expectations of physical therapists and the actual ability of physical therapists to appropriately practice within their own scope. So, what does this mean for us? Student physical therapists can BRIDGE THE GAP between what should happen and what is happening . . . WITH PT STUDENT ADVOCACY! (Yes, you knew we would repeat this).

Common student cop-outs:

As students, we are naturally good at excuses, here are some common cop-outs we all know a little too well:

  • As SPTs there is just NO TIME for anything except what is required . . .
  • A position in student SIG sounds like a lot of work . . .
  • PT student advocacy sounds great, but what am I passionate about?
  • I know I am passionate, but now what?
  • How do I express the importance of these issues to my fellow peers in a way they understand and relate to?
  • I am too shy . . .
  • Why advocate when I could just spend my free time with my dog or feline friend? (arguably, the most compelling cop-out)

So how do SPTs advocate?

There’s a route for everyone – trust us.

Traditional Route: Join the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)

The APTA acts on behalf of the profession and adds power to our voices, especially within legislation! Joining the APTA provide access to countless resources and promotes advocacy for the physical therapy profession

Student Special Interest Groups (SSIGs):

Similar to SIGs for practicing clinicians, SSIGS help student physical therapists become more involved with the APTA and get to the heart of their interests. This is an opportunity to learn more about topics of interest and discover what you are passionate about so you can go forward and advocate for PT.

Writing to your Legislators:

When it comes down to it, decisions regarding the future of Physical Therapy and rehabilitative services are made by our legislators. That’s a lot of power in few hands — so it’s important to stay up to date. When upcoming legislative decisions arise that you have an opinion on, write your legislator about Physical Therapy and share your position on the legislation being proposed.

Community Service Events

Don’t forget PT Day of Service every October!

Community service events, whether health related or not, provide an opportunity to give back while promoting all that physical therapists do for clients and patients. It is through community events that we are exposed to different individuals and different beliefs about what it means to have optimal quality of life. This helps us to understand and better relate to our future patients and clients.

Non-traditional Route BUT SOON TO BE . . . Get creative!

Write blog posts for outlets like NewGradPhysicalTherapy!

Social Media (PTAC): Share education and professional content via your own social media!

Practice your evaluation and treatment skills on friends/family: Why wait until clinicals to apply your knowledge? Every encounter with a family or friend offers an opportunity to get hands on and show/explain what PTs do (hint hint this is advocating!)

Need more convincing?

The interactive experiences that arise and the connections you make through advocating are arguably more valuable than the 5 hours you most likely just spent memorizing muscle origins and insertions. When advocating we are interacting with real people and naturally discovering the social, emotional and physical limitations that keep people from moving. In the end, some of the best advocacy occurs during everyday conversations when we take the opportunity to integrate PT knowledge within the context of another person's life.

Did we ignite your PT student advocacy flame?

We hope so!

Check out our New Grad PT report to get up to date here: 

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