By Heidi Toth
NAU Communications

A few years ago, a local man rolled into the pro bono physical therapy clinic at Northern Arizona University. After many months of weekly therapy, he walked out of it.

The patient, who had no health insurance at the time, had suffered a severe cerebrovascular accident (death of brain cells after oxygen is cut off from the brain, as in a stroke), and he required a wheelchair to move. His quality of life was low, with little prospect of recovery.

That changed as he continued coming back to the clinic. Every Wednesday, campus and community members who are uninsured or underinsured can get physical therapy (PT) at no charge from PT students who need practice hours and hands-on experience. As this patient came each week, semester to semester, his life and health have improved. He walks with a cane, he can participate in Xbox Kinect video sports gaming and he is able to move and enjoy life more independently.

He is just the type of patient PT faculty had in mind when starting the clinic, said Lorie Kroneberger, an associate clinical professor at NAU and director of clinical education. The clinic started close to two decades ago, with PT students working under the supervision of physical therapy faculty members to treat students with musculoskeletal injuries.

Since then the clinic has grown, serving community members with orthopedic and neurological diagnoses and children, including people who exceeded their outpatient physical therapy insurance benefits and had no other options for continued rehabilitation or weren’t otherwise covered for physical therapy and students who are on out-of-state insurance plans. Since the arrival of clinical professor Valerie Carter, whose research agenda focuses on adults with Parkinson’s disease, the clinic has helped more people with more neurological conditions. A team of first- and second-year doctoral students works with each patient, with a faculty member overseeing each team.

Physical therapy clinic

Physical therapy doctoral students, with the oversight of faculty members, provide therapy to uninsured and underinsured members of the Flagstaff community.

“The most obvious benefit is for our students, who are able to step out of the classroom to apply and hone their psychomotor and clinical reasoning skills and become maximally prepared for their full-time clinical internships in the final year of the program,” Kroneberger said.

It also, of course, provides relief to the patients—relief they may not have gotten anywhere else.  For people who are in constant or frequent pain or aren’t able to participate in running, hiking, sports or even walking or gardening or other regular activities because of pain, regular physical therapy can make a significant difference in quality of life. Without insurance, such relief may not be possible. Sustained physical therapy and exercise also has been shown to stave off or lessen the physical restrictions that Parkinson’s disease can cause.

“Research has shown that the sooner a physical therapist can become involved in the care of individuals that have suffered an injury or illness, the better the outcomes will be, and the higher the cost savings will be to the health care system as well,” Kroneberger said. “Many of the older clients suffer a gradual but significant functional decline in the absence of ongoing skilled maintenance programs. Our clients are provided evidence-based care and the most effective measures available to prevent complications and optimize recovery.”

For more information about the Physical Therapy Clinic, visit its Facebook page.