Hosting a virtual placement in private practice, community-based Occupational Therapy

In July and August, I was given the opportunity to host a student for their final placement – however with COVID-19, there was a new way of doing that we needed to adapt to: Alice*, the student, would be participating in the placement 100% virtually.

For context: I’m an Occupational Therapist who works in community-based private practice. During the early months of COVID-19, I had transitioned into delivering services full-time over telehealth using Microsoft Teams. When the public health recommendations changed at the end of May, I began to gradually start meeting with clients in-person again, provided I was wearing a mask and was following public health recommendations. So, by the time Alice and I started working together, I was delivering services using a hybrid model of in-person and telehealth services, tailored to the needs of each individual. 

So, here we were with a new model of service delivery and a new style of placement, learning together – and yes, sometimes, it felt like we were muddling our way through, but in the end, it was lots of fun and we both learned so much.

Here are some of the things that we learned: 

Challenge #1: Our biggest challenge was probably the cell service (and this is specific to where I live). Living on Vancouver island in Canada, there are times when our phones picked up US cell towers instead of Canadian ones and so I could not use Microsoft teams without roaming. During these times, the student could no longer participate in the session – which was frustrating at first, and something we navigated.  

Adaptation #1: When we realised the sites where my phone picked up US cell towers, we could plan in advance for the student to work on self-directed projects or, if appropriate, work with the client to figure out an alternate meeting location. 

Challenge #2: Some of the people that I worked with at that time did not feel comfortable having a student. This meant there were times when I would be with people and the student would need to have self-directed work time.

Adaptation #2: This happened pre-COVID too so it was easier to navigate. Students bring a fresh knowledge base and understanding of evidence-based practices – they can help bridge the gap in knowledge-sharing between academia and real-life practice. Occupational therapists also have a role in programme design and since I had the experience of teaching about it as a Teaching Assistant earlier that summer, I used this to our advantage. During self-directed time, with people experiencing the COVID-related disruption of our lives as trauma, Alice worked on researching and developing trauma-informed practice resources that could be integrated into our existing programmes, as appropriate. She also developed skills in self-management.

Challenge #3: During in-person sessions, it was sometimes hard for the student to be present in sessions and take the lead through my smartphone when I was there in-person. 

Adaptation #3: Smartphones can create hotspots. So that the student could be present, on sessions when we were not walking, I created a hotspot to my laptop so that they could be present on a 13” screen instead of a 6” one. When we were walking or doing active occupations with clients, and the smartphone was the most suitable option, Alice did learn how to take the lead using the smartphone. For some sessions, where people preferred to connect via phone or had decreased technology access or competence, I would set up my work phone on speakerphone by my laptop mic and speaker and Alice would communicate with people via the telephone via Microsoft Teams. As COVID-19 has shifted the way we practice, this was great transferable learning for doing telehealth with clients who may be with family in a room or who may not have access to a computer (or a smartphone). 

Challenge #4: Usually when students have placements with our Occupational Therapy services team, they get their own desk in our open-concept office. It is easy for them to ask questions and for us to roll/foot-propel our office chairs between desks to work together.

Adaptation #4: This one was quite an easy fix. We just had a Microsoft Teams meeting running between us as we worked so that if Alice had questions, she could pipe up and ask away. We could virtually work alongside each other.

… and here are some reasons why Anna recommends hosting a student (on a virtual or in-person placement):

  • Learn – learn about the ways you practice more intentionally and stay in tune with the latest learnings in the research world, critically appraise their relevance to your practice, and develop practical strategies for implementing these with clients.
  • Grow your practice – two heads are better than one and, with a student, you can design more of those evidence-informed, tailored tools that you’ve been longing for
  • It’s fun – I love teaching and sharing knowledge – I learn something new each day and students bring fresh energy to infuse into practice
  • Contribute to the growth of the profession – I am so grateful for the placement opportunities that I had as a student – each one got better and better, I had lots of fun and learning, and I got to delve into all different areas of practice. Soon students will be our colleagues and we want our profession to continue to improve our skills in serving people.

All in all, as with many things with COVID-19, there were new situations that we adapted to in our practice context: community-based occupational therapy. Alice had opportunities to develop competencies for becoming an Occupational Therapist through client sessions and novel ways of practicing competencies, we both thought that it went much better than we expected, and we both grew as clinicians. 

*Alice is a pseudonym.

Author: Anna Braunizer

Twitter: @ABraunizer

Have you experienced a virtual placement? If so, we would love to hear from your experiences! Comment below or send us an e-mail at [email protected]

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