UNM Physical Therapy Students
Tiffany Enache (middle) guides UNM physical therapy students Thy Nguyen and W. Zach Smith while they work with a patient at Langford Sports and Physical Therapy.

Three students and an instructor watch intently as the older woman walks barefoot across the carpet in the hushed room. Four pairs of eyes focus on her right knee and ankle when they call out for her to turn. After a few minutes she stops  – and the questions begin.

It’s all part of a scenario played out biweekly in a new physical therapy (PT) student clinic that was launched earlier this year.

“It’s always better when the students can observe – not only how other students are approaching a patient but also how faculty practice what they are teaching,” says Burke Gurney, PhD, PT professor and chief of the Division of Physical Therapy.

The clinics, held at Langford Rehabilitation and Therapy Services, recruit people who have tapped out their health benefits or don’t have current therapy insurance coverage.

Students work in teams – two first-years and a second-year. Other classmates team up to staff the front desk. Everyone participates twice in the schedule. 

The experience has been a hit across the board and plans call for it to move to weekly clinic sessions in the fall, says the clinic’s creator, Tiffany Enache, DPT, the division’s director of clinical education.

Modern-day physical therapy has its roots in the treatment of amputees returning from World War II and in working with polio victims in the 1950s.

“In the beginning, it was very focused on treating an injury,” Enache says. “These days, there is less focus on the diagnosis and more on the person. We want to know how this injury is affecting what you do and what realistic goals to set.”

Different injuries and surgeries require different rates of recovery. Understanding the mechanics of those injuries is important, but patients also need a therapist who can help alleviate their concerns and inspire hope, she says.

The clinic comes as UNM’s PT program expands in the wake of a new state law that allows patients direct access to physical therapists. 

“Direct access will impact the state’s health care in a good way,” Enache says. “We should see ERs unload patients, and physicians have more openings. Why have someone waiting to see a doctor for two weeks in order to get a referral to see us? The longer you wait, the more chances there are for new injuries.”

Quicker access to physical therapy will benefit patients, she adds. The students, meanwhile, are learning how their interventions can make a dramatic improvement in someone’s life, Enache says.

“Our students know that even if we can only see a patient once, in that 35 minutes we have the opportunity to show someone something he or she can do that can potentially change their quality of life.”