After reading about the physical therapy profession, you may want to observe a PT while at work. This is called shadowing. Shadowing a PT allows you to observe the daily work life of a PT. You may want to shadow both PTs and Occupational Therapists (OTs). In some healthcare settings, these professionals can perform very differently, and in other settings they can perform very similarly. Understanding these differences and similarities between the professions and how they can vary across healthcare settings will help you better understand which of the two you want to pursue as a profession.

Prepare for Healthcare Experiences

Research the Profession and Organization

Before participating in any healthcare experience, it is important to do your research about the profession and the organization in which you're participating in the experience. To learn ways to read about the profession, in the left-hand navigation click Explore and then Read. To begin researching an organization, visit the organization's website. Read the About Us and Services section, at the least. Then, conduct a basic Google search to find any news about the organization.

Prepare Questions

At any point during your experience, there may be time for casual conversation. This is a great opportunity to learn more about the profession. Prepare questions that encourage dialogue. Here are some sample questions:

  • How did you become interested in this field?
  • What are the most and least satisfying aspects of your work?
  • What did you not expect about the profession that you have found to be true?
  • How do you balance your career with other commitments and interests (e.g. family, community engagements)?
  • What does work/life balance look like in this profession? How does your job affect your general lifestyle?
  • What experiences contributed to your success in this career? What would you have done differently?
  • What do you recommend that someone do during their undergraduate career to prepare for this profession?
Complete HIPAA Training

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), a complex law that designates that way in which health information can be used, impacts students that shadow, observe, intern, or work within healthcare. Title II of this law, Administrative Simplification, impacts you (as a student) the most because it addresses privacy standards. Therefore, prior to shadowing, observing, or working within a healthcare setting, Pre-Professional Health (PPH) Advising strongly recommends that you complete HIPAA training.

The Institute of Innovation in Health and Human Services (IIHHS) at JMU developed an online HIPAA training, which is a great training for you to complete prior to making contact with any healthcare professional. Then, when you initiate contact with the healthcare professional, let them know that you have completed this online training. The specific healthcare provider with whom you intend to shadow, observe, or work may still have a specific HIPAA training that you need to complete; but, completing the online training provided by IIHHS can go a long way to show your initiative, healthcare knowledge, and professionalism.

Connect with a Healthcare Professional

People are usually very willing to talk with you about their career field, path, and experiences, so don't be intimidated to put yourself out there.

Find a Healthcare Professional

First, utilize your personal connections! People that you already know can connect you with others that are in your career field of interest. This is called networking.

With networking, you'll often hear the phrase, "It's all about who you know." But that's not all it's about - it's about who you know, and what they know about what you want.  Therefore, communicate with your network (e.g. family, friends, co-workers, classmates) that you are interested in a specific healthcare profession and want to connect with a licensed professional in that profession. Then, ask if they know of anyone in that profession or another healthcare profession that may help you connect with a person in your profession of interest. If your network doesn't know your interested in a specific profession, they won't know to help you connect with someone!

Second, you can identify healthcare professionals in your field of interest with whom you have no connection. By searching for local places where these professionals work, such as private practices, outpatient centers, or hospitals, you can email or call the main email/number of the organization.

Contact a Healthcare Professional

After identifying a liscenced healthcare professional or healthcare facility, call or email to connect. You want to include the following information in your initial contact:

  • Your first and last name
  • How you obtained the name of the liscenced healthcare professional's or healthcare facility
  • A brief, professional summary about yourself (2-3 sentences max)
  • The reason you are contacting the individual (e.g. informational interview, observation hours)
  • What you hope to gain from the experience
  • Your phone number and email address. If you are calling, be sure to leave a voice message saying your name and number slowly.

Document, Reflect, and Maintain Your Network

Log Hours and Journal Experience

There is not a national, centralized way to keep track of your hours. Therefore, it is up to each individual person to maintain a log. When applying to professional health programs, whether through the Centralized Application System (CAS) or directly with non-CAS-participating programs, you will take the hours that you have logged and transfer that into the format requested.

When documenting your observation hours, note the following.

  • Licensed Professional Observed (name, email address, License #)
  • Specialty Area, if applicable, and Types of Patients
  • Healthcare Facility (clinic/facility mailing address; type of setting)
  • Experience Dates (start date and end date, or anticipate end date)
  • Paid/Volunteer
  • Hours (hours completed and those planned or in-progress)
Reflect on the Experience

Throughout your experience, we encourage you to journal. Journaling is not a diary. Your entries are based on the activities of the day/week, but journaling is more than documenting those activities. Journaling is a tool to reflect upon the activities and begin creating personal meaning of those activities. You can read and reread your entries to see your own growth over time. Seeing htis growth can help you as you prepare to write a personal statement or interview for your professional health program.

Maintain Your Network - Follow-Up

Send a thank you note after the experience has concluded. This note should be sent within 1-2 days to express your appreciation for their time and sharing their experiences and perspective.

Keep in touch with th person, especially if you choose to pursue the profession. Let him/her know if you followed their advice and how things are going as a result. Also keep him/her abreast of your academic, leadership, service, and other healthcare experiences. This connection could become an important part of your network.

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