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Physical Therapy students work to solve operational challenges in real clinics

Jan. 10, 2023

Physical Therapy study at Mizzou includes some course work you’d expect — students learn the anatomy and physics of the human body and evidence-based methods for treating patients who have health conditions that limit their ability to move. But in addition to those “hard” skills, Mizzou’s program prepares future PTs for challenges they might face in a clinic that have little to do with the mechanics of treating a patient. For instance, students learn the business side of operating a private practice, how the U.S. insurance systems work and leadership skills. 

Emily Miller, a third-year PT student, got to experience this “soft” skill-building this fall when she was assigned a group project to work with a practicing physical therapist on an actual problem their clinic was facing. 

Miller’s group worked with Kelsey Okruch, BHS ’08, DPT ’10, manager at the Children’s Therapy Center at MU Health Care, who noticed that helmet therapy for babies with plagiocephaly was no longer covered by several major insurance providers. This meant that the clinic therapists had to spend more time filing appeals to insurance providers to save their patients’ families from having to pay out-of-pocket for these necessary helmet therapies. The student group was tasked with proposing ways to streamline the appeals process so that it didn’t take up as much of the clinicians’ time. 

“My last clinical was at Children’s Therapy Center, so I was aware of some insurance difficulties the clinic was facing regarding helmet therapy but not the extent to which this issue was affecting clinicians’ productivity and the large number of families in the clinic,” Miller said. “It was great to meet weekly with Kelsey to learn all about the insurance denial issue and get her perspective on what solution may be most effective and sustainable.” 

Emily Miller, third-year physical therapy student, presents her group project.
Emily Miller and her group were challenged to find ways to help a pediatric clinic process insurance appeals for helmet therapy more efficiently.

Greg Cox, assistant teaching professor of Physical Therapy and Health Sciences, has been assigning this project in collaboration with Mizzou Therapy Services since fall 2020. And the project doesn’t just benefit the current PT students. Sometimes the project mentors do implement a version of what the students proposed in their clinics when the project is over. 

“I recognize that for a collaboration to be lasting, all participants have to benefit,” said Cox, BHS ’10, DPT ’12. Each semester he solicits feedback from the project mentors to learn how he might improve the process and make sure this collaboration is still a good use of the mentors’ time.  

Ultimately, the faculty in the department of physical therapy want their students to be adept problem-solvers and leaders in their workplaces in addition to providing excellent clinical care. This well-roundedness is what will allow Mizzou PT graduates to begin improving patient care and processes from the get-go.  

“Each clinic, hospital and health system that our students work in will have operational challenges and opportunities,” Cox said. “When our final-year PT students explore solutions to authentic and relevant challenges that may be impacting clinics across the PT landscape as part of this project, they are building valuable skills that will equip them to assume informal leadership roles as new graduates.” 

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Greg Cox

Greg Cox

Assistant Teaching Professor