It’s been called a gap in the health care system: There are few places for students to go for physical therapy job placement and few affordable clinics for low-income patients.

That’s where the University of Alberta’s Physical Therapy department’s Student Physical Therapy Clinic comes in.

The clinic is a way to help low-income patients in need of physical therapy – while helping physical therapy students gain real-world experience.

“There are numerous gaps in the community from the rehab side of things,” said Geoff Bostick, assistant professor with the U of A Physical Therapy department.

“We wanted to try to address some of those gaps by having students work with people from the community to improve their quality of life and their function and capacity for movement”

When the clinic first opened, it was a four-hour-a-week service.

Now it’s operating five full days a week with patients like Larry Villetard receiving physiotherapy that he says he wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise.

“It’s been a blessing,” Villetard said.

He comes to the clinic twice a week and says he’s developed a special bond with a physical therapy student who he helped him recover movement in his right arm after suffering from a stroke two years ago.

“Just four months ago I couldn’t move this hand off my lap. I command it to move and nothing. Now I'm getting significant movement,” Villetard said.

“I can do things now like reach a door knob or hold a loaf of bread and slice it. All of those many little things, I can hold those jam containers. For two years there was no way I could get the jam out of that little container.”

Affordable alternative

Villetard only has to pay $10 to visit the clinic – which is a big difference when compared to private facilities.

“The cost can be $60, $80 depending on the service and even some specialized services may cost more, so for some people that’s a barrier,” Bostick said.

Since September, the clinic has seen 275 people.

Yung Wong is a second year master’s student and says she’s learned a lot during her hands-on six-week placement.

“I have a chance to look at whether the things we learn in class are applicable to real-life scenarios and patients,” Wong said.

Wong says working with patients is rewarding.

“A lot of the patients respond very positively. Patients love coming here because we tend to try things that maybe they wouldn’t have come across in other clinics. It’s been quite a positive learning experience.”

Since his stroke, Villetard hasn’t been able to work.

He says without the U of A’s affordable physiotherapy option, he likely wouldn’t be getting the mobility rehabilitation he needs.

And while Bostick and students are happy to know they’re helping – they admit more could be done.

“It’s a modest service we provide,” Bostick said.

“There are definitely a lot of people that could benefit from physiotherapy that still don’t have the opportunity.”

With files from Carmen Leibel