Do’s and Don’ts of Observation

Observation hours are an important part of your PT school application. In additional, the PT you are observing with is a potential source for a letter of recommendation. While every clinic is unique, however, there are some general guidelines to keep in mind.

DRESS — The most common question I get is, “What should I wear?” In general, I recommend a business casual appearance. No jeans, no t-shirts, no tennis shoes or flip flops. No intense neon colors and crazy patterns. Khakis and a polo shirt (for women too) is a safe bet. You want to be comfortable. Keep in mind that the place where you are observing is probably not set up for your comfort. You may be standing, sitting on a stool or mat table or even sitting on the floor. If you have any questions about appropriate attire, it’s ok to ask when you are scheduling your visit. 
MAKE UP — If you need to wear it, keep it conservative. This is not the time to break out the bright red lipstick.
JEWELRY — Men, I’d recommend none. Women, keep it mild. Avoid anything wild or dangly. I’d also recommend that you take out piercings and cover tattoos. 
EASY ON THE PERFUME — Some PTs (especially in an inpatient setting) do not wear perfume. Patients might find it distracting or have an allergic reaction.

UNPLUG — Don’t bring your computer and/or tablet and turn off your cellphone. I have noted a distressing increase in PTs reporting that students are texting during observation times. BRING A PENCIL AND PAPER — You might want to take notes or write down questions for later. Don’t take notes on your phone. People might think you are texting.
READ THE ENVIRONMENT — Every clinician handles student observation differently. Some will want you to be invisible while they are with patients. Others might fully engage you in conversation or a Q&A session in the middle of a treatment session. Read their cues and adapt. Do not initiate conversation with the patient unless you are invited to do so.
YOU MAY NOT GET TO SEE EVERYTHING — Don’t be offended if you are asked to step outside occasionally. If a patient needs to remove some of their clothing during a session, a PT make ask your to step out or may ask the patient if they want your to leave. Don’t take it personally. 
WHAT YOUR NON-VERBALS — You do not have to look completely captivated the entire time you are their but try not to look bored out of your mind. Some clinics are pretty intense. My students have reported that some PTs move from patient-to-patient without taking a break. If you need a break, excuse yourself and step out of the treatment room.
BE ONTIME — I recommend 10 minutes early. 
SOCIAL MEDIA — It is fine to speak in general terms or to express appreciation on Twitter or Facebook, but do not share patient details on social media. And (obviously) do not share negative opinions. I actually had a student post something like “I’d never want to work for ________” on Facebook. Our department got a call from the facility. 
SAY THANKS — Send a thank you note at the completion of your observation.

COME WITH QUESTIONS — One of the best ways to show you are interested is to ask questions. Ask questions that show you were paying attention. Don’t be surprised if the PT gives you homework or asks you to follow-up by researching a particular pathology or treatment technique. I had a student who observed over a 6-week period with a PT who specialized in low back pain. The student read several research articles on the McKenzie Method and came with specific questions that show she had done a little homework on her own. This PT was impressed and shared the story in the letter of recommendation she wrote for the student.

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