Work Type



Fall 2017

Faculty Advisor

Dr. Holly Roberts PT, DPT, GCS, NCS




International Service Learning: An Overview

Kaitlynn McKirgan, SPT; Daniel Murty, SPT; Dr. Holly Roberts, PT, DPT, GCS, NCS

Affiliation: 1. The School of Physical Therapy, University of Puget Sound



A wide range of healthcare disciplines including nursing, public health, occupational therapy, and physical therapy (PT) now recognize global health participation and education as a necessary component of healthcare education. Increasingly, students applying to and choosing which PT program to attend must now consider the design, purpose, benefits, and potential drawbacks of such a program in their education. The purpose of this report is to provide an overview of International Service Learning (ISL) structure, its proposed benefits and concerns, and to briefly compare how the University of Puget Sound’s (UPS) pilot ISL program compared to recommendations found within the literature in order to define possible areas of improvement.


Literature search was performed using PubMed, Google Scholar, ProQuest, Academic Search Premiere, and Cochrane. Search terms used were: Global health, international service learning, physical therapy, experiential learning. Programs described in the literature were compared to the course structure outlined in the UPS Global Health Perspectives Course PT677 Syllabus. The course instructor was interviewed to gain any knowledge not available within the syllabus regarding program structure.


Pechak and Thompson recommend 7 components to create a program with positive outcomes: 1. A partner that understands the role of PT; 2. Community identified needs; 3. Explicit service and learning objectives; 4. Reflection; 5. Preparations; 6. Risk Management; 7. Service learning outcome measure. Benefits to students participating in ISL programs include: increased confidence, improved communication skills, self- empowerment, independence, increased student self-assessment scores, increased experiential learning opportunities and increased understanding and confidence in professional roles when ISL project includes cooperation with other professions.  Ethical concerns are inherent and individual programs must pay close attention to the impact they have on the communities they seek to serve. Common ethical dilemmas that should be considered include the power dynamic between the community and those rendering services, the quality of care being provided, sustainability at the community and individual levels, and community need.


The UPS pilot ISL program met 6/7 components for optimal ISL outlined by Pechak and Thompson: Use of an outcome measure to evaluate the service learning experience should be applied in future programs. Other recommended improvements to the program include incorporating instruction to local care providers to increase service community self-efficacy. Finally, increased medical Spanish education in the months leading up to the ISL program is advised.

Works cited

  1. Pechak CM, Thompson M. A Conceptual Model of Optimal International Service-Learning and Its Application to Global Health Initiatives in Rehabilitation. Physical Therapy. 2009;89(11):1192-1204.
  2. Smith SN, Crocker AF. Experiential learning in physical therapy education. Adv Med Educ Pract. 2017;8:427-433. doi:10.2147/AMEP.S140373.
  3. Reisch RA. International Service Learning Programs: Ethical Issues and Recommendations. Developing World Bioethics. 2011;11(2):93-98. doi:10.1111/j.1471-8847.2011.00299.x.
  4. Pechak C, Gonzalez E, Summers C, Capshaw S. Interprofessional Education: A Pilot Study of Rehabilitation Sciences Students Participating in Interdisciplinary International Service-Learning. Journal of Allied Health; Washington. 2013;42(3):e61-6.
  5. Fries KS, Bowers DM, Gross M, Frost L. Service learning in Guatemala: using qualitative content analysis to explore an interdisciplinary learning experience among students in health care professional programs. J Multidiscip Healthc. 2013;6:45-52. doi:10.2147/JMDH.S35867.


University of Puget Sound