The benefits of mentoring allied health students in your clinic

Physiotherapist and practice owner Winnie Lu shares her advice for how to make hosting students in your practice a satisfying experience for you and them.

Guest author

Winnie Lu, Breathe Physio & Pilates·

Clients and practitioners at Breathe physiotherapy and pilates studio in Brisbane (Australia)

Clinical placement, we’ve all been there. Sweating through our first five-day work week, overwhelmed, unsure, and tired. We worried about not doing a good job, how to manage our time effectively, and whether our clinical educator actually liked us.

I’m the founder and principal physiotherapist of Breathe Physio & Pilates, a private physiotherapy practice based in Brisbane (Australia). I started my clinical educator role in early 2021. I’ve found the experience hugely rewarding, not just for myself, but for my practice. I wanted to share some benefits of hosting students in private practice, and some strategies I have found useful to make the experience satisfying for both students and my staff.

Why be a clinical educator?

Few private practices provide clinical placement for allied health students, but I’ve found this is a beneficial experience for many reasons.

First, being a clinical educator gives experienced practitioners the opportunity to build and improve their leadership and communication skills, including setting expectations, providing and receiving feedback, and developing staff. By teaching students, I have also become a better coach and mentor for my own staff by incorporating weekly in-service sessions and giving timely feedback.

Second, I’ve found that having students at the practice gives clients reassurance and confidence in our quality of treatment. Most private clients at my practice are happy to have students present, and for the students to treat them. During an appointment, when I ask students to explain their assessment and clinical reasoning to the client and prompt them (by asking e.g. how about this… have you thought about this… why is it important that we do exercises this way?), it’s actually an effective way to establish and build client trust.

Third, students are keen to learn. They bring energy and enthusiasm to my practice. I love some of the questions they ask, which prompt me to think about why I always do things in certain ways. I also really appreciate the students pitching in with what they learnt from the latest curriculum which I’m then able to implement. Another interesting thing I’ve noticed is that having students raises the quality of work by my existing staff. There’s a sense among staff that they need to continue improving themselves and helping lead the students.

4 tips for providing a great learning environment for all

1Set expectations early

It’s extremely important to set expectations early with students. A week or so before they start placement, I send them an email with details of my practice, and encourage them to read our website and social media accounts to get a feel for the clinic.

On their first day, I explain what our values are and the standards that I expect them to meet. We also have an orientation booklet (with pictures too!) that the students can read in their own time.

Setting expectations becomes really useful when we have to refer back to them during the placement and it gives me a good basis for providing feedback to students (more on this later).

Students have told me that expectations-setting has been crucial in helping them settle into the placement.

2Provide timely and regular feedback

I have weekly feedback sessions with my students. The sessions don’t have to be long and the duration can be changed to suit the individual. During these sessions, I give students timely feedback – both on things they’ve been doing well and areas they could consider improving. I also ask the students for feedback about how I’m doing, so that I can adjust my teaching style if needed. This is another great way to establish rapport with the students.

3Introduce students to clients confidently

I think a lot of private practices shy away from offering clinical placements because they don’t want to scare away their clients. This was one of the reservations I had too.

But this didn’t stop me from asking clients if it was okay for the students to sit in. I also found that most clients were happy for students to treat them too. It’s up to you how much you involve your students, but I’ve found that a combination of subject and objective assessment, treatment and exercise prescription has worked for my practice.

I’ve also started to introduce the students by saying “Hi, I’m Winnie and this is [student name], we’re going to be looking after you today”. Most clients don’t think twice about this and are quite happy to have the extra attention!

4Use technology

Gone are the days of workbooks and paper documents. I use a combination of Cliniko, Google Drive, and Slack for my students.

Cliniko - we’ve set up a practitioner called “Student” and this enables students to control their own appointments and write up treatment notes. I can also pop their daily schedule in Cliniko.

Google Drive - so students can access our policies, procedures and manuals.

Slack - we use Slack for instant messaging between staff and students. You can set individual channels and choose who has access to which conversation. It's a really handy tool for communication on the go.

It’s important that the technology works for you, so you may want to explore a few different things that best suit your role as a clinical educator.

I understand why many private practices hesitate to take up students, and even if they do, they think twice about having students treat patients. But for me, the long term benefits make clinical education worthwhile. You get to build relationships with a new generation of practitioners and learn the latest evidence-based practice, which gives birth to creativity and innovation to continue providing excellent care. It also gives students invaluable experience that makes them more attractive to employers. Most important of all, it allows me to give back to the health profession which has given me so many opportunities in Australia and overseas.

Author information

Winnie Lu is the co-owner and principal physio at Breathe Physio & Pilates in Brisbane, Australia. She opened the practice with her wife in 2020 after extensive experience working in Australia, Europe and the UK.

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