What if there was ONE tool that could help you learn orthopedic evaluations as a student physical therapist (SPT)?
What if this same tool reduced errors? And was easy to use, low-tech, and cost $0?
Would you use it? What if I told you that tool was a checklist…
When you are first learning how to perform orthopedic evaluations as an SPT, the demands on your attention can be overwhelming. Within your evaluation time frame- say you have 20-30 minutes, you must: take a subjective history, perform comprehensive testing (range of motion, strength, joint play, palpation, and special tests), as well as move the patient efficiently through multiple body positions (supine, prone, standing, sitting, etc.), and finally you must distill all of this information into a differential diagnosis. Whew! It is a lot to think about when you first start off! Any tips and tricks to improve efficiency, accuracy, and consistency of your physical therapy (PT) evaluation are truly valuable.
One tool that I have come to rely upon in learning how to perform a consistent and effective evaluation, in a timely manner is The Checklist. As I’ve written about before (Can A Checklist Make You A Better PT?), checklists have been used in various medical settings with positive outcomes (improving patient outcomes, reducing medical errors, and guiding treatment decisions). The checklist does not only function to reduce errors, but I believe it can be an effective learning tool for guiding appropriate practice when learning how to perform PT orthopedic evaluations.
If you want to get good at the evaluation process, it is not enough to just practice evaluations. You must take a hard look at HOW you practice evaluations. There has been a lot written about this concept in scientific journals as well as the popular literature on expertise and skill learning. (1,2,5) In order to improve a skill to the level of “mastery” or “expertise”, you must practice that skill in very specific ways. The way you practice must include focused attention as well as a means for receiving reasonably timely feedback. As students, some of this feedback can come from our professors, some can come from peers, but much of our feedback is self-delivered feedback.
Setting up conditions for practicing evaluations is not so different from how you might approach (or teach) someone who is learning a new movement skill. The complex skill, either movement skill or orthopedic evaluation, must be broken down into its component parts and each part practiced to the extent that it is performed correctly.
Here are three key areas for optimizing your evaluation practice (and how checklists can help):
1. Break Down The Evaluation into “Sets and Reps”
1st “Parts” Practice > 2nd “Whole” Skill Practice
“Practice” the way you want to “Play”
The Fundamentals Must Be Automatic Before You Get Fancy
As clinicians, I think there is a natural desire to want to feel the state of “Flow” early on- that everything is clicking and you are utilizing a unique combination of scientific “truths” and intuitive judgments in your evaluations. But, flow and mastery take time to develop. So, I would argue that as you are starting out, the number one priority should be to make your evaluations as consistent as possible- almost to the extent of feeling “boring” or rote. This idea, I think is well expressed by famous psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term “Flow” (4) and is author of the book: “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” (3). In this book, he writes,“You must first learn your craft and then set it aside.”
I’m off to practice my evaluations…
-Leda McDaniel, SPT
Please Visit Her Website For Examples Of Her Orthopedic Evaluation Checklists
Leda is a current Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT) candidate at Ohio University and upon graduating in May 2019 is interested in working with orthopedic patients with chronic pain. Leda recently published a book about her experience of personal recovery from chronic pain, which you can find on Amazon:
You can also find her blogging at: https://sapiensmoves.wordpress.com/
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