The University of Montana Physical Therapy Clinic opened a second location for physical therapy services in conjunction with Partnership Health Center on March 5. The clinic has been in the making for almost a decade and is run by second-year UMPT students and faculty advisors.

Partnership Health Center, located in the old Missoula Creamery on the north side of downtown, provides access to affordable medical, dental and other health services for Missoula residents. UMPT has one pro bono physical therapy clinic already on the UM campus, offering services to students and Missoula residents. But it can be tricky for lower-income Missoula residents to get to campus for care, according to clinic supervisor Audrey Elias.

“A lot of people have a lot of pain, but they don’t have a car or transportation. Walking all the way to Arthur Avenue and into Skaggs is sometimes a barrier,” Elias said. “We’re hoping that we can get a lot more people into services that will help them more efficiently than just medication.”

Elias and the UMPT program have been developing the Partnership physical therapy clinic project for almost a decade. She wanted to include physical therapy in the integrated care offered at the health center. When Partnership remodeled its building a few years ago, space was set aside for a potential physical therapy clinic. Elias set to work and began planning an associated program.

The clinic in Partnership Health Center will allow physical therapy students to practice what is called “warm hand-offs” between medical doctors and physical therapists, a means of helping patients get into the physical therapy care they need. If a doctor decides that physical therapy is the right choice for a patient, a PT student can be called in for a consultation during the appointment. That student can bring the patient to the PT clinic to explain what sort of physical therapy the patient may need. Elias said this breaks down the barrier patients face when trying to understand what they need and whether it’s worth pursuing.

Elias said a lot of patients don’t access physical therapy care because they might not understand what it is. She said she hopes this integrated clinic will help bring care to people who need it.

Physical therapy students on the administrative team have worked to organize the clinic for the past few months. Many students have plans to start their own physical therapy clinics in rural communities after earning their doctorates. By working with the Partnership Health Center, students get the chance to learn on the job and work with a variety of injuries.

“I think it’s going to be a really cool opportunity,” second-year PT student Kansas Suenram said. “Getting to work on the administrative team, for me, that’s just invaluable experience. Learning how to manage and start a clinic, and then getting to work with the other professions that are in the Partnership Health Center, that’s experience that we don’t get here on campus.”

Elias agrees that the physical therapy clinic is a great opportunity for her students to learn on the job.

“Students can now serve people outside the campus community,” Elias said. “They can help patients over [school] breaks, who might be more complex and dynamic. It’s a new opportunity and a different patient population.”

Partnership Health Center is community-funded. It runs on donations from different members and organizations in the Missoula area. It offers medical, dental and pharmaceutical services along with UMPT’s new physical therapy program. UMPT also offers physical therapy care in its on-campus clinic in the Skaggs building.