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Student-led clinic for those with Parkinson’s disease

Emma Breheny
3 April 2016

Three years ago, the Student Led Neurological and Falls Physiotherapy clinic at University of Canberra’s Faculty of Health Clinics established an exercise program for people with Parkinson’s disease. We talk to Allyson Flynn, APAM, a physiotherapy clinical educator at the university who helped to establish the program.  

‘We saw two opportunities: we could provide clinical education to physiotherapy students while also fulfilling the need for a community-based service for people with Parkinson’s disease in Canberra,’ she explains.

The program involves group-based classes, overseen by a clinical supervisor and two students who do the majority of the assessments and work with the clients. Allyson guides the students and ensures they are working within clinical guidelines.

The model makes supervised exercise affordable while also providing a continuous source of clinical placements for students at the university. Other student-led clinics in the faculty include musculoskeletal physiotherapy, nutrition and dietetics, clinical psychology, and occupational therapy. This particular clinic addresses a range of neurological disorders, depending on what clients present with. Exercises for those with Parkinson’s range from dual task training through to bed mobility.

‘Our work is grouped into three areas: exercise to increase physical capacity, practice to improve motor learning and skill acquisition, and strategy training to assist people as the disease progresses. We aim to cover all three depending on the person’s assessment,’ Allyson says.

Each person’s initial assessment identifies goals and issues, and sets outcome measures.

‘One of the challenges is ensuring we balance the ability of the participants in each class, because we work across the spectrum of Parkinson’s.’

Allyson is currently working on standardising data collection so that outcomes can be properly analysed. So far there appears to be a general trend of increased walking speed. There have also been social and emotional benefits for both clients and their carers. Carers often get coffee together while the class is running and share their experiences. In class, participants are doing the same, proving that an improvement in overall wellbeing is not simply an improvement in clinical outcomes.

‘When the clients talk with one another, the other person has a real understanding of what they’re saying. People without the disease can show concern, but often they don’t have that same level of understanding.’

Students also report benefits for their clinical skills, including dealing with a range of clients and, more unique to this clinic, working with multiple clients simultaneously.

The clinic has steadily grown under Allyson’s watch from one weekly class to 13 classes per week. Over the next two years, there are plans for the clinic and classes to be the centre of formal research, with the outcomes being incorporated into the program.

In dealing with a problem today, this clinic is also giving tomorrow’s physiotherapists a taste of what’s ahead.


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