Physical therapy internships

physical therapy internships, physical therapy internships for undergraduates,

Physical therapist internships take place in hospitals and clinics and it’s where the art of physical therapy is learned. A physical therapy internship is a great complement to the classroom where students spend time filling their brains with the science of practice.

Physical therapy internships or rotations are a requirement for every accredited physical therapy or physical therapist assistant program. Physical therapy internships play an essential role in preparing students to enter the workforce as entry level clinicians and in this article we will explore how physical therapy internships work and what to think about when applying for your internships.

Expectations for physical therapy internships

Knowing that physical therapy internships will be required of every student enrolled in a PT or PTA program, it is wise to look at the physical therapy internship requirements of a specific program when applying for schools.

Schools vary in the number, length and placement of their clinical rotations, however, there are minimum requirements that ensure students have enough clinical practice to prepare them for their licensure exam.

As of 2024, CAPTE, the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education mandates that the clinical education portion of a physical therapist education includes a minimum of 30 weeks of full-time clinical education experiences, based on a minimum of 32 hours/week. Physical therapist assistant education programs are required to offer between 520 and 720 hours of clinical education.

Most programs offer short, part-time physical therapy internships early in the program followed by longer, full-time physical therapy internships. Some schools have students complete all of the didactic and some part time internships first and then send students on sequential full-time internships at the end of the program. This arrangement gives students months of supervised practice just prior to entering the workforce which can build confidence.

Other schools place the longer physical therapy internships between didactic intervals which gives students opportunities to enter advanced courses with clinical experience that informs their learning and allows them to build on what they saw in the clinic. This structure also has many benefits which means a student may consider their preference when selecting schools to which they might apply.

Part-time clinical rotations are often one afternoon or one day a week over a few weeks or even a semester. These rotations introduce students to practicing as a student therapist. Longer internships are between 8 and 16 weeks. A student will always have direct supervision of a licensed therapist. Some internships will give a student their own caseload while others will have the student share a caseload with their clinical instructor. The number and complexity of patients a student is responsible for increases over time.

PTA students will complete treatment notes while physical therapy students will complete treatment, initial evaluation, progress and discharge notes. PT students will write goals and physical therapy plans of care. Students gain experience consulting with other healthcare team members, working in an interdisciplinary setting, educating patients, performing differential diagnoses and discharge planning. Both PT and PTA students are often required to complete a project or a presentation for the clinic as well.

Choosing the setting for your physical therapy internship

PTs and PTAs are trained to be generalists, capable of entering almost any practice setting at an entry level. Clinical internships provide PT and PTA students with opportunities for a behind-the-scenes look at different settings which helps guide their job search upon graduation and licensure. Many programs require that PT or PTA students complete a clinical rotation in both an acute care setting and an outpatient orthopedics setting with greater flexibility for the remaining rotations.

The range of available settings is determined by the contracts held between a physical therapy school and individual hospitals or clinics. Some schools allow students to request a contract with a specific clinic or hospital while others limit students to contracts that already exist. This may broaden or narrow the range of opportunities available but most schools have placements available in a variety of settings.

Below are examples of settings where you may work:

  • Acute care adult hospital
  • Acute care pediatric hospital
  • Adult or pediatric inpatient rehab
  • Intensive care unit
  • Skilled nursing facility
  • Long term care facility
  • Outpatient orthopedics
  • Outpatient neuro
  • Outpatient geriatrics
  • Outpatient pediatrics
  • Home health
  • Home health pediatrics
  • Sports rehab
  • Pelvic health
  • Hand therapy
  • Worker’s comp rehab
  • Wound care
  • Cardiopulmonary rehab

Location of physical therapy internships

Clinical internships can present opportunities to live in new areas or work close to home. Some schools are willing to establish new contracts requested by students which allows a student an opportunity to select a specific location for one of their internships. Some schools place no restrictions on where their students’ rotations are completed whereas other programs require their students to complete at least one of their rotations outside the immediate area of the school. This may be done if there is a limited number of programs available within commuting distance of the program.

The growing popularity of hybrid programs in which students complete the bulk of their didactic learning from home, often means programs are working to establish clinical internships across the country. When it comes to choosing the locations of your internships, there are several things to take into consideration.

Try asking yourself some of these questions to help you narrow down your choices:
  • Where might I like to work after I graduate? Can I get an internship in that city, area or even specific clinic or hospital to build relationships and try out the area?

  • What affordable living arrangements are available to me if I move to an area for 8-16 weeks for a clinical rotation?

  • What is the commute from my home to the internship?

  • Will I have access to social support or recreational activities that will help boost my mental and emotional health while I complete this rotation?

Work alone or with a fellow intern?

Most clinical internships consist of one student with one clinical instructor. There are cases, though, where a student may be placed in a 2:1 rotation where two students work together under one clinician. There are pros and cons to both arrangements.

Students working in a 1:1 arrangement have the full attention and mentorship of the clinical instructor but may not have opportunities to collaborate with or learn from other student PTs or PTAs during their rotation.

A 2:1 rotation means that a student will be working closely with a second student throughout the duration of the rotation. This can bring complicated interpersonal relationships into the picture but can also present an opportunity for students to learn to work as a team, give one another feedback and collaborate–skills that will be important in their profession.

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It’s where the learning happens

Clinical physical therapy internships should be a time full of learning and good communication with the ACCE, the academic coordinator of clinical education, at your school is important. Regular self-assessment and assessment from your clinical instructor through surveys like the CPI should be a means of facilitating growth throughout your experience. Clinical internships are also where all your hard work from pre-PT school and PT school pays off and you get a glimpse into the career for which you have worked so hard! With a little forethought and a lot of learning, you are bound to succeed in your clinical internships.


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