Student Physical Therapists interning in Italy

Student Physical Therapists Tessa Mertins, Kelsey Frey and Christina Wavrunek sightseeing in Italy.

From L to R: Student Physical Therapists Tessa Mertins, Kelsey Frey and Christina Wavrunek sightseeing in Italy.

Early in her career, Clinical Associate Professor and Director of Clinical Education Ann Dietrich, PT, DPT, MS, had the opportunity to live, work and practice physical therapy outside of the United States. Now, she has made this opportunity a reality for her students.

Experiences shaping professional practice

Ann DietrichEarlier in her physical therapy (PT) career, Dietrich lived and worked in New Zealand. This experience shaped her professional practice in two significant ways.

First, New Zealand, like many countries, has a system of universal health care. The experience she gained working in a system of universal health care was invaluable. Dietrich explained, “As the U.S. grapples with decisions surrounding the optimal ways to provide access to health care for its population, there will be changes.” Experience in systems outside of the U.S. health care system prepared her to become an informed voice in the conversations surrounding the issues of access and provision of health care in the United States.

Second, the opportunity to practice and learn PT outside of the United States gave her a better understanding of the importance of cultural humility which also provided her with a better sense of self. She explained, “When placed in a situation where language and/or culture are different, you adapt to meet the needs of your patients.”
These experiences provided invaluable learning and development opportunities, both as a human and as a health care provider, that she now wants to pass on to her students.

Bringing a program to College of Health Sciences

Through a connection with a colleague from the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), Dietrich learned about international internship placements for students provided through the company, Eduglobal Associates. Dietrich decided to pursue this finding and worked to provide international internships for her students.

Dietrich contacted the UWM Center for International Education (CIE) to work through the details of partnering with Eduglobal Associates. As a result of the partnership Dietrich created between Eduglobal Associates and the CIE, UWM Doctor of Physical Therapy students were able to apply for the international internship program for the Spring 2020 semester.

The international internship program was looking for students who were flexible when they found themselves in unfamiliar situations, when dealing with the ‘unknown’ and when asked to approach a task in a way that may be different than what they had previously learned.

Also, while all of the clinical instructors speak fluent English, not all patients will speak English. So, the selected students had to be willing to work on learning the language to enhance their patient encounters.

Students Interning in Italy

Three student physical therapists in front of a church in Milan.This semester there are three students completing KIN 882: PT Internship III in Italy. Two students, Kelsey Frey and Christina Wavrunek, are working at Istituto Prosperius Fiesole and one student, Tessa Mertins, is interning at Villa delle Terme.

Wavrunek explains, “As one of the first few students in this program to complete clinical [education] abroad, I feel incredibly appreciative of this unique experience. I am so grateful to be able to wake up every day and fully immerse myself in the Italian culture and health care system.”

In their positions, they are known as student Physical Therapists (SPT’s). During the internships, the SPT’s are mentored by experienced licensed Physical Therapists and learn all aspects of PT patient care including exam, evaluation and development of a plan of intervention.

All the assessments and assignments for the internship course are facilitated online so the students can access and complete the same information and assignments, regardless of their internship location. Their work in Italy will be the final internship for these students before they graduate in May 2020.

Frey explains, “This opportunity has allowed me to see a different health care system, as well as see different styles of physical therapy. I am able to learn from some of the best therapists here in Italy who have immense experience in different areas.”

Looking Toward the Future

After Frey, Mertins and Wavrunek return from Italy, Dietrich wants to debrief with them to consider how or if the process should be done differently. Dietrich is also considering ways to expand international internship opportunities so that more students can learn about PT in different countries.

Mertins explains, “This opportunity has made me aware of different ways to approach physical therapy.”

Dietrich plans on continuing the partnership with Eduglobal with the hope that more SPTs will apply for international internships. She plans on supporting the applications of SPTs in the next cohort.

As Dietrich explains, “While it has taken a lot of work to get to this point, I think it is worth it to expand the learning opportunities for our students to help them be agents of the change in the future.”