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Guide to Observation Hours

Most schools require some observation hours, which was definitely my favorite part about the entire application process. It’s not boring and you’re not just standing in the corner staring at the physical therapist and patient (although this does happen some of the time). Observing allows you to get to know a physical therapist, learn about the career field, and figure out if this is really something you want to pursue!

This guide will give a general overview of the process and answer some commonly asked questions. I will also give a summary of my experiences in the 5 settings in which I observed.

What are observation hours?

Observation hours include paid and volunteer time spent with a physical therapist. They may be directly treating a patient, or you may be filing paperwork or cleaning treatment areas – it all counts as long as a PT is there to witness!

How many hours do I need, and where should I observe?

Each school will have their own requirements. Check the school’s website, PTCAS website for each school, or the PTCAS Observation Hours Summary. You must meet the requirement for each school in order to be considered for acceptance – this is not a just a recommended guideline, so double check what each school requires. Some are more specific than others in that they require a certain number of hours in outpatient and inpatient.

I recommend that you observe in an inpatient setting, whether or not it is required by the school. Additionally, observe in as many settings as possible! I observed 5 settings, and one of my interviewers mentioned how great it was that I was able to see several different types of therapy. Try to get 20-40 hours in different settings, rather than getting 200 hours in just one. You’ll be exposed to different patient populations, different treatment techniques, you’ll get a better idea of what you’re interested in, and you will have more physical therapists to potentially write you a letter of recommendation.

It’s never too late to start observing! I started about a year before I applied, and I observed between 2-20 hours a week, depending on how many places I observed and whether I was taking classes at the same time. As long as you meet the minimum for each school, you’re all set! More hours does not equal better, so if you already meet the minimum, try to diversify the type of settings rather than racking up a bunch of hours in just one or two settings.

Here are the possible settings to choose from on PTCAS. You can choose more than one for each facility you observed at (for example, if the acute hospital also had home health that you observed).

  • Acute Care Hospital
  • Rehabilitation Hospital
  • Skilled Nursing Facility
  • Outpatient Orthopedics
  • School
  • Wellness/Fitness
  • Occupational Health
  • Home Health
  • Other Inpatient Facility
  • Other Outpatient Facility (Hippotherapy comes to mind)

Here are the possible populations observed to choose from on PTCAS. You can choose more than one for each facility you observed at.

  • General Orthopedics
  • Neurologic
  • Cardiovascular/Pulmonary
  • Integumentary
  • Geriatrics
  • Pediatrics
  • Sports
  • Aquatics
  • Women’s Health
  • Other

How do I find someone to observe?

  • In person – Few people will show up in person, so you’ll stand out as someone who really wants to volunteer. Just simply walk up to the front desk and introduce yourself, and ask if they would let you observe some treatments.
  • Call – If showing up in person is not possible, calling is great too! Expect to call several places before you find somewhere to observe.
  • Email – This is another option, but it is likely that the email will be ignored. I emailed 10-15 places to observe, and got one positive response! It is possible, but plan on sending many emails before you get a chance.
  • Volunteer department – Hospitals generally require you to sign up through the volunteer department. Busier hospitals may have a waiting list, so try to get your inpatient hours as early as possible. I contacted the rehab department directly because the volunteering department did not include physical therapy. I also began volunteering at my university’s health center by signing up through the volunteer department and they placed me in the physical therapy clinic.
  • Use your connections – Ask your friends and family if they know any physical therapists that would be great to shadow.
  • Look up your school district – School therapy is less popular for observation hours, so use Google to your advantage to find an email or phone number.

What should I do while observing?

This depends on the setting, and you can read the details of my experiences below. I watched treatments and asked thoughtful questions either during the treatment or right after, depending on what felt like a better time to ask. For example, in orthopedics, I just asked questions during the treatment because I usually talked to the patient and physical therapist, so it didn’t feel out of place to ask. In the hospital, it worked out better for me to ask questions when walking to another patient’s room, or when they were typing up the paperwork on the computer between patients. Just be yourself and be engaged in the experience! Notice how the PT talks to and interacts with patients, what questions they ask and how and why they treat something a certain way. Ask what they like and dislike about their job, other places they have worked, how much paperwork they are required to do, their thoughts on the future of physical therapy, etc.

Depending on the setting, you may be able to be more active in the treatments. If you’re an aide, you may perform ultrasound or apply heat packs, or if you’re volunteering you might follow behind a patient with a wheelchair. Try to be as active and helpful as possible!

Between patients, there are a lot of things you can do. I folded laundry, cleaned treatment rooms, organized foam rollers, cleaned suction cups, talked to the pt aides, read through the pt aide binder, jotted down notes on the treatments I just saw, or talked to other patients that were in the room. If you’re unsure of what to do, just ask! I struggled with keeping myself busy in outpatient orthopedics because I did not observe a majority of the time, but it became easier over time.

How do I report all my hours?

PTCAS has an article on how to submit your hours. I recorded all my hours on an Excel spreadsheet (more details on this blog post), so I knew exactly how many hours I had, what settings I observed in, and what dates I observed. Even if you are required to write down the hours at the hospital or facility where you observed, it was really helpful to have it written down on my laptop too. When you apply, you will fill out all of this information, including the name of the physical therapist and the facility. If your school requires verification of these hours, you will also need an email for each physical therapist, or you can upload a paper signature.

Where did I observe?

  • Outpatient Orthopedics (65 hours) – I volunteered at my school’s health center, so I mostly saw students and some employees of the university. I liked that I was able to observe with 5-6 different physical therapists and I saw different injuries. However, I didn’t like how I saw a lot of ankle, knee, and shoulder injuries, and the PT aides used heat packs, e-stim, and ultrasound on a lot of patients. Most of my time was spent cleaning and organizing the clinic instead of observing the therapists, so this was my least favorite of the experiences.
  • Aquatics/Pediatrics (36 hours) – I volunteered through a community nonprofit which worked with children with special needs. We met once a week for 1-2 hours, and each volunteer was paired up with one child. We said hello to our kids, helped them into the pool, did a group activity, then worked with our kid alone or in small groups, and then ended on another group activity. Some kids were able to swim in the deeper end, but most of them were held in our arms as we moved them through the water and they played with toys and the other kids.My first semester, I was paired with two girls who were wheelchair-bound as they had a steel rod in their back, and they used a feeding tube so I had to be careful to make sure that water did not get in their mouths (which is pretty difficult because other kids LOVE splashing!). It was tough to work with them because they had limited mobility and they weren’t able to speak, so I tried my best to communicate with facial expressions and hand movements.The following semester, I switched between several different kids, but the one I was with most often was diagnosed with dwarfism. He was able to walk and talked a little bit, and he was really shy around the other kids. He was one of the youngest and had trouble swimming without his dad for the first month or so, but gradually became more confident and was playing with other kids and going underwater. It was so cool to see his progress and be a part of it.
  • Fitness/Wellness (81 hours) – I observed here for 3-4 hours a week for one school year, but I really loved coming here! This PT converted the master bedroom in her house into a clinic, and she ran her cash-based business out of her house. I lit candles and made sure the music stayed on during sessions, so that was really different than every other setting (in a good way!). I love that she had longer sessions (1.5 hours for evaluations and 1 hour for treatments), and she incorporated a lot of yoga into the treatments. I saw a lot of different patients, and I saw one or two patients often enough to see them progress and get to know about their lives. Many patients were there for chronic conditions, which was different from the other settings I saw in which patients were recovering from surgery or recent injuries. There was a lot of downtime between patients, so I had a lot of time to ask her questions and play with her adorable 1 year old baby.
  • Inpatient Acute Hospital (39 hours) – I volunteered here on my winter break for 2 weeks. I showed up in the morning when all the PT’s and aides were in the rehab room. We were all given a printout of all the patients that needed to be seen, everyone updated the group on how the previous day’s treatments went for each patient, and then everyone decided which area of the hospital they wanted to go. There were 4-5 different areas of the hospital, and I only saw patients who were recovering from surgery, broken a bone, or were older and had difficulty moving. A majority of the patients were over 70 years old because this was more of a rehabilitation hospital, so a lot of treatments were in the bed or were gait training down the hallway. I got food tables out of the way, assisted with putting on gait belts, and followed patients with the wheelchair or oxygen tank. I had a lot of time to ask questions between patients, and I remember asking a lot about medical diseases, diagnoses, and abbreviations that were on the patient printouts. I saw how the therapists typed up their paperwork, and one of the aides walked me through the electronic medical record and asked what I would write down for one of the patients. I don’t think I would like to work at this hospital in particular, but I’m interested in hospitals with pediatrics and more settings than this one.
  • Inpatient Rehabilitation Center (15 hours) – I only spent 15 hours here because I already had over 200 hours of observing. This setting was cool because the occupational therapists worked with the physical therapists, so I was able to observe both careers and learn about the differences between the two. I walked with the therapist to the patient’s room, watched patient transfers, and saw treatments in the main gym area. There were 6-10 patients in the gym at a time, so there was always something to watch. I walked around to different therapists when I saw something I wanted to observe and introduced myself to each patient. Each patient shares a room with another and some had been there for months, so they really liked talking about their lives and were generally easy to talk to. The actual treatments themselves were not too interesting, but I loved talking to each person and spending a lot of time with them.
Do you have any questions about observing? Ask me below!

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  1. Kasey

    Hi! Again, just as everyone else has said, your blog is absolutely amazing and so so informative! I have been fortunately unfortunate to have had two intense ortho injuries and surgeries that required 3 years of PT pre and post OP, so I have a good understanding of outpatient and ortho.

    I’m starting observation hours as I get close to transferring into late sophomore or early junior year of a kinesiology pre pt undergrad.

    My question is this- what truly is the difference in observation, volunteer, and paid hours? Is one better than the other (obviously getting paid would be great) in terms of your application to the DPT program? PTCAS says lnpatient/outpatient is required and volunteer/paid is “accepted/considered”. A lot of people use “observe” and “volunteer” interchangeably as well when they discuss these things.

    Secondly, thought of PhD in PT? I personally would love research but I’m not sure how interesting PT research would be in comparison to say, nutrition (I’ve always wanted to get into dietetics as well).

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Kasey! Thanks so much for reading. 🙂

      I’m sorry to hear about your injuries, but I’m so excited you chose to pursue physical therapy!

      That is a REALLY good question. In my experience, observation / shadowing / volunteer hours are pretty interchangeable terms. The only place I “volunteered” at was the outpatient ortho clinic on my college campus, because I had to apply to be a volunteer and the clinic had duties for me to complete while I was there 2 hours/week. I was expected to clean all the rooms after each patient, fold all the laundry, organize, cut therabands, clean any IASTM or cupping tools, etc. If there was any downtime, then I would observe a patient, however I usually didn’t directly shadow the PTs.

      When I’ve observed/shadowed at all the other places, I usually just watched the PT / PTA / aides and asked questions, got to know the patients, etc. If there was any downtime, I offered to help clean and fold things, but that was a small percentage of my time spent observing. In general, most people just get shadowing/observation hours. I don’t think it matters if you do that versus volunteer, because you’re not really doing anything “skilled” as a volunteer.

      If you have time for a part-time job and want the experience of being an aide at a clinic, then I’d go for it! Paid hours are a bit better than shadowing/observation because you have more interaction with patients, learn about exercises/stretches/modalities, and might learn about scheduling / insurance things that you might not learn about otherwise. Paid vs observation hours is probably not going to make a big difference in regards to getting into PT school, so if you have plenty of observation hours at different clinics, and don’t really want a part-time job, then don’t stress about getting extra paid hours! You might be better off working in a job that pays more than a PT aide, so you can hopefully save up some money for PT school.

      You should join the “Food and Physical Therapy” group on Facebook, and send a message to Austin Win. He’s a dietician and DPT and would probably be willing to chat with you! 🙂 I’m not interested in getting a PhD at this time as I’m not sure how beneficial it would be for my career interests. I’m also interested in research, but possibly to just participate in a study rather than make it my full-time job. Several of my PT school instructors did not have a PhD but they did research because they also taught at my school. Sometimes you can get in contact with a local hospital that does research and get involved that way. There’s no rush to decide if you want to pursue a PhD, so I’d recommend finding some active PTs on Twitter or one of the large PT facebook groups and sending some messages!

      Best of luck with everything, and hope this helps! 🙂


  2. Sydney

    Hey! I just now found this article/blog and found it extremely helpful! Im hoping to shadow at Benchmark this summer. One question I have is what do you wear to shadowing? I know it can vary depending on the setting, but is there a general attire rule to adhere to with physical therapy?

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Sydney! Thanks so much for reading! I’m glad it was able to help you out. 🙂

      I haven’t heard of Benchmark, so I can’t give you specific advice. If you’re shadowing at a hospital or nursing home, they might have a specific dress code for you to follow to make sure you adhere to infection protocol. They could want you to wear scrubs, long pants, good closed toed shoes, etc. If it’s a general clinic, I’d try to dress business casual (ie. nice pants and a blouse / button down / polo shirt). Try to avoid anything too casual (sandals, shorts, tank tops, dresses, etc.). Typically shadowing is a pretty casual thing so as long as you’re dressed pretty appropriately, nobody will care too much. If you’re still not sure, it never hurts to ask Benchmark before you show up!

      Best of luck. 🙂


  3. Grateful

    Thank you for your blog! It’s very helpful and encouraging.

    I found a website that suggested taking a HIPAA class to be HIPAA compliant. (

    Is this common to do before shadowing, or before sending shadowing requests? Should I take a HIPAA class before I start e-mailing people to ask to shadow, and does having taken a HIPAA class improve my chances of having practitioners let me shadow them?

    Thank you for any help you can give!

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      You’re welcome! 🙂 I’m so glad that it’s been helpful for you.

      I don’t think it’s common to take a HIPAA class before shadowing, and 100% not necessary! I had to do a short HIPAA training for one outpatient clinic that I regularly volunteered in, but the other 4 clinics didn’t teach me anything about it. I just kinda used common sense to keep the patient’s privacy.

      If it’s free, then it could definitely be helpful to take, but don’t worry about it if you have to pay money or if you don’t really want to. I’m sure a quick google search or Youtube video would teach the same things!

      Best of luck getting shadowing hours! 🙂 I’m sure you’ll do great. Let me know if you have any other questions!

  4. Erin

    Hi! So I called a Benchmark PT to see if they would allow me to observe and they said yes. They asked what I wanted to see and I’m not really sure what they meant. Did he mean like the types of injuries, or services they supply?I’m so confused, do you think you could clarify? Thanks so much!

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Erin!!! Thanks for leaving a comment and reading my blog! 🙂

      They probably are talking about specific injuries, ages (kids versus athletes versus older adults), specific treatments (aquatics, dry needling, etc). They just want a better idea of what you’re interested in, so you have an awesome learning experience! I think it would be a good idea to call them again and ask what exactly they meant, and then you can tell them if anything sounds really interesting and you 100% want to see it. If you just want to see anything and everything, just say that!

      Good luck, and congrats on getting some observation hours! I hope you enjoy your time, and let me know if you need any more help. 🙂

      • Erin Shaw

        Sorry for the super late reply, but thank you so much for your hep! I love reading your blog and hope I can follow it through my journey of PT school! You post some really helpful things and I hope school is treating you well!

  5. Etherly

    Hey! I have a question, did you have any knowledge at all about what they do or physical therapy in general before your observation hours? I start mine this week and I’m a little nervous because my knowledge about it is from nothing to beginner. I did take biology/anatomy classes in college.

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Etherly! Thanks so much for reading and leaving a comment. 🙂

      I started observation hours 1 year before applying to PT school. All I knew about PT was from what I searched on Google, and I also spoke to a couple of PTs on the phone, so I also didn’t know too much about PT. It’s 100% normal to know very little about PT – that’s the whole point of doing observation hours! You’re not going to get quizzed or get looked down upon. Every single PT has been a student before, and they just want to help you learn about the profession.

      It’s totally normal to feel uneducated, anxious, or afraid when starting your observation hours, but I can promise you that it gets WAY more fun and LESS awkward the more hours that you do. You’re going to be just fine! Please let me know if you need any help with anything else. 🙂

  6. Christina

    How old can your observation hours be? For example If I plan to apply to PT school in 6 years, would any observation hours I accumulate now still be valid?

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Christina! Thanks so much for commenting!

      I have never seen any rules regarding if observation hours expire. I just did a quick search and PTCAS doesn’t mention it on their website, so I’m assuming that it’s determined by each individual program. I’ve heard of people including hours completed during high school. I personally don’t think your hours will be invalidated, but if you want confirmation, I’d call or send a quick email to local PT schools and see if they have any policy regarding your question. Even if you’re not sure if you want to apply to these schools, it’ll give you some confirmation of what some schools currently require. If any of them invalidate hours after a certain # of years, please email me! I’d love to learn more about it.

      It’s so awesome that you’re beginning hours so soon. I recommend starting to get hours ASAP and slowly continuing to observe over the next 6 years, and make sure to keep track of everything! 🙂 Let me know if you have any other questions.

  7. kmiafitness

    THanks u so much Kate, this is very helpful. TOday I be volunteer first time at PT clinic, i was so nervous and this blog help me a tons of what i am supposed to do.

  8. Pingback:Applying to PT School: The Basics – The Journey to PT

  9. Lexi

    Hi!!! Thank you for the very helpful information. I have a question regarding one of the settings that you observed in. There is a club at my school that does similar things that you did in the aquatic/pediatric setting, but it does not involving shadowing a PT. So my question is does it still count as observation hours? Even though you were not directly working with a PT did those hours still qualify?

    • Katie - My Road to PT

      Hey Lexi!

      I forgot to add in my description that the nonprofit was run by two physical therapists, who both attended every week. In order for observation hours to count, there must be a physical therapist present, because they enter in their license number to verify your hours. That sounds like an awesome opportunity for you, and you can definitely include it under your volunteering section and maybe include it in some essays.

  10. myorganicadventureblog

    Hi Katie,
    I am an undergrad student at Towson and I am an aspiring PT. I was wondering how you got to doing inpatient hours. I am finding it to be quite hard as most hospitals have minimum of 100 hours over the course of a year (?)…. also, your fitness/wellness experience sounds amazing! A women turning her master bedroom into a home practice?! Wow! How do you find opportunities like that? I go home during the summer so until summer starts its a bit hard to show up somewhere in person.
    Sorry for such scattered thoughts, but another question. How should I go about finding a home health PT to observe under? Let me know! Thanks for the blog!

    • myroadtopt

      Hey Laura! I hope I’m not responding too late! I haven’t checked my blog in a while, and somehow I didn’t get notifications for any comments in the past few months.

      Cool, Towson is pretty close to where I live! Yeah, hospitals can definitely be difficult to get hours in. I believe they want a minimum # of hours because it does take some time to do volunteer orientation, so they don’t want students that are just going to show up for 1 day and not return. I happened to do some observation hours at a smaller hospital, so I just spoke directly with the physical therapy department, instead of the larger hospitals which have more loopholes to get through. Seriously though, the hospitals near my undergrad required an application, references, resume, and my undergrad was HUGE for pre-meds so there was a really long waiting list. I understand your frustrations!

      So before I was sure I wanted to go to PT school, I emailed and called maybe 15-20 PTs. I found a lot through my school’s alumni website, but I also emailed literally every PT clinic nearby to see if I could talk to them for a little bit on the phone, and get more information about what they do at their specific jobs. I met that PT at her clinic and talked to her for an hour, and then she asked if I wanted to observe every week with her!

      You can definitely do something similar – call or email PT clinics that you are interested in. I know it’s the end of summer already, so I hope that you found somewhere to observe!

      As for home health, that may be a lot trickier to get observation hours in because the PT has to drive to each location, so I guess you’d have to ride with them, or follow them around town? I don’t have any direct experience with that, so the only ideas I have are to find a local home health company and contact them, or use social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) to find a local home health physical therapist.

      Best of luck!

        • Katie - My Road to PT

          Yay, I’m glad you found 2 places to observe! 🙂 I know how difficult it can be. My only other advice is to try to keep in contact with those PT’s, or maybe keep observing there a little bit. That way you’ll have a lot of options when you need letters of recommendation.

    • myroadtopt

      You’re welcome! Thank you so much for reading and commenting! 🙂 If you have any other comments or can’t find an answer to a question, feel free to reach out to me and I’ll do my best to help.

  11. Isaac

    I have been shadowing at a extended care facility where there were many more opportunities to shadow the many PTA’s who were working under the direction of PT’s. Should I include hours spent shadowing PTA’s individually? Or count them as time with the PT? Or do they simply not count at all?

    • myroadtopt

      I would definitely contact PTCAS by calling them, or asking a question on their Facebook page. If you are applying to PT school, then I don’t think you can count the shadowing hours by PTA’s because that is a different profession, and they are not allowed to verify your observation hours. However when I observed at a hospital, I spent some time with PTA’s, aides, and OT’s. I still counted those hours because the vast majority of my time was spent with PT’s, and it would have been a hassle to calculate the exact time spent with just the PT. I would still contact PTCAS just to double check, though.