Preventing Burn Out While In School

We hear about burnout after a physical therapist begins practicing for a few years, and learn about ways to prevent it and remain interested and invested in your practice and in your patients.  However, we never talk about burnout while in school.  After sitting in class week after week for 35+ hours, it can be mentally and physically taxing. It can be hard to still have that passion that we had when we first entered the program.  

In the Physical Therapy program at the University of New Mexico, we participate in weekly mini-clinics throughout each semester.  We go to various clinics, rehabilitation facilities, and hospitals throughout the city and surrounding areas for 4 hours on a Wednesday morning.  We are partnered up with another student in our class every week, and are assigned to a clinical instructor at the clinic we’re attending that week.  There are many benefits to this aspect of the program.  It allows us to practice newly learned skills and brainstorm together when presented with newer conditions or techniques.

It’s also beneficial to be able to work with different physical therapists of different backgrounds, different work experiences, different ages, different educations, and so much more.  It exposes us to a variety of styles and techniques, and we gain little tips and tricks on how to transfer larger patients, hand placements to improve reliability of special tests and ease when performing them, or how to have proper body mechanics for different body types.  These first-hand experiences also give us insight on what to prioritize when the physical therapist is running out of time with a patient during an evaluation or a follow- up treatment.  Many of the physical therapists I’ve worked under have a different flow while doing an evaluation, and it’s helpful to see what works, and to think about what I would do differently to come up with my own flow when I’m working with a patient.

After every mini-clinic, we have a little reflection assignment due in our classes. We have a checklist of different things that we ideally would have seen in a morning at a clinic or hospital.  This includes things such as testing sensation, proprioception, range of motion, balance, etc.  It gives us an opportunity, once we’ve left the clinic, to reflect on everything we did, and why that was necessary for that patient. Occasionally, depending on the setting, we have the opportunity to work with, or alongside, other health care professionals, such as occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, MDs, and nurses. We get to see how the physical therapist we are working under interacts with other health care professionals and see what role each of those people play in the patient’s overall health care.

While all these tips and tricks and times to practice are valuable and helpful, I personally believe the most valuable part is actually being able to work with real patients in a real clinical setting.  It breaks up the monotony of sitting in a classroom listening to lectures for 7-8 hours every day, and it gives us a chance to reignite the spark that made us all want to become physical therapists in the first place.  It gives us half a day of problem solving with complex patients, talking with patients about their goals with physical therapy, and allows us to see even minor improvements with patients within one treatment session.  Mini-clinics keep us interested and passionate about the profession when we start to feel burnout from being a student.  

by Lisa Peterkin, SPT