Clinical Attachment

Working in a clinic can broaden a student athletic trainers¹ horizons.

By Scott Cheatham

Scott Cheatham, ATC,CSCS, is an Athletic Trainer at Physiotherapy Associates, in Long Beach, California.

Training & Conditioning, 11.6, September 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1106/clinic.htm


As a student of athletic training, you are probably getting your first glimpse into the workings of the healthcare profession. While most of your time is spent gaining the knowledge necessary to become a certified athletic trainer, it is never too early to start thinking about where you would like to put that knowledge to use. There are numerous venues to choose from. Now is the time to become acquainted with as many venues as possible.

The clinical setting is a great place to begin searching for your own niche in the athletic trainer field. Athletic trainers working in clinical settings have the opportunity for perhaps the broadest work experience because they see clients from many different sports and from many different age groups. In addition, PTs and ATCs in clinics often work together on individual cases, which gives them the opportunity to learn more about each other's field.

During my experience as an athletic trainer working in an outpatient physical therapy clinic for the last four years, I have gained a new understanding and respect for the integral relationship that athletic trainers and physical therapists utilize to provide their patients with the best quality care. For example, the company that I work for provides medical services for various professional tennis and volleyball competitions. During these events, the relationship between the ATC and the PT changes‹both practitioners work side by side, with the ATC taking a lead role in many cases.

Most clinics provide athletic trainers with the opportunity to experience this dual role, whether it's with professional athletes or local high schools. In addition, working in a clinic may also include a more traditional role in which an ATC teaches patients rehab exercises, provides hands-on treatments such as stretching and massage, and assists physical therapists in patient assessment.

If an athletic training student wants to enter the clinical setting, he or she should focus on a few key areas before making that commitment. First, it's important to understand the extent to which an athletic trainer can practice in the clinical setting. Each state has its own set of laws that can either limit or expand the role of the ATC in the clinical setting. In most cases, however, ATCs tend to work directly under a physical therapist.

The second key area is choosing the ideal setting to practice in. Even among clinics, there can be a great amount of variety. For example, some clinics offer outreach services and some don't. Some specialize in sports medicine, while others focus on the industrial or the geriatric sector, while still others offer an array of services. I think it's important to get a taste of a few clinics to see how they differ and what each can offer. One good way to do this is through observation. Going to different clinics and observing for a day can help in the decision-making process.

To set up an observation, talk with your head athletic trainer. Often, he or she will have a relationship with one or more local clinics, or at least be professionally acquainted with some of the people working at them. If there is a particular clinic you are interested in observing, you can also contact the office yourself. We take a lot of students in athletic training and physical therapy in my clinic for day-long or week-long observations. This is common practice and you'll find that most clinics will be happy to extend the opportunity to you.

Even if you're not contemplating work in the clinical setting, there's one more reason to gain first-hand knowledge there: It is a great preparation for certification and licensing. You've been introduced to the concepts of physical therapy in some of your classes, but there's nothing like seeing those concepts in practice to drive the point home. A week or so in a clinic will give you great insight into how it really works and put the classroom information you've gained into a practical context. When empirical experience backs up the academics you have a formula for success.