The Art of Physical Therapy
Estimated Reading Time: 5 minutes
Working in health care involves years of education and training for most professions, a lot of which involves learning about science and hands-on skills. Some of it involves learning about psychology and collaboration with other professionals.
However, there are some aspects of being a health care professional, and specifically a physical therapist that can't be taught. No professor, textbook, or lab can teach these skills.
It's these traits that make a good physical therapist into a great physical therapist:
Relating to the patient's situation
When patients come to you they want their pain alleviated and their quality of life improved, usually as soon as possible. They are coming to us for help and we can't forget that.
It's our job to not only meet their needs, expectations, and help them return to previous health and wellness, but also "meet them where they're at." Our patients need to know we understand them, hear them, and can relate to them. "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care!"
This is what creates buy-in, trust, and ultimately helps us help our patients.
This is one of the ways we as physical therapists separate ourselves from the rest of the health care pack.
Your post-ACL surgery treatment plan for 1 patient is usually similar, but not identical to the next. We ensure that each component of our treatment has evidence, clinical reasoning, and intention behind it. It's crucial to relay this information to our patients and make sure that they have input into their plan of care.
You should always have a "why" and be able to speak to it—whether to a fellow clinician, patient, or other health professional—when asked. Again, this establishes trust and credibility with your patients and other professionals.
Understand your own strengths and weaknesses
You survived physical therapy school, you're working at your first job, and you're presented with a case that you're not quite sure what to do with it. We've all been there, it happens. What you do next is what matters.
Do you reach out to a mentor or colleague? Do you dig into research articles and textbooks?
Or do you talk your way through that first assessment? Do you make your best guess and see what happens as result?
Lean toward the first crowd. Get comfortable with the idea that you don't know it all. Reach out for help, do your research, and approach each scenario with those tools in hand.
Helping the patient become part of the team
Physical therapist treatment won't be successful without patient involvement and buy in.
In my home state of South Dakota, our referrals are overwhelmingly from physicians and mid-level providers. Basically, most of my patients are seeing me because someone told them to.
Some patients will walk through your door with an attitude that they are here because they "have to be," and it can be a challenge to help these patients understand how a PT can help.
Helping the patient take an active role in their recovery can be a challenge—and yes, this involves being a good salesperson—but it's possible.
This is where getting involved in our communities, talking to providers, and most importantly, patient education, are crucial in shaping the perceptions of our profession.
As physical therapists, we know the power of our services. We understand the need and importance of our place on a patient's health care team. We know that physical therapy improves patients' health and quality of life. But now it's on us to make the case.
Teaching them about their condition
Admittedly, our society looks to Google for their health issues before they even see a medical professional. Or our patients likely receive a diagnosis from the provider who referred them, whether it's correct or not, and proceed to do some of their own research as well.
This is when we as physical therapists need to strive for transparency with our critical thinking process. It's on us to tell them exactly what we're thinking and why.
Patients will likely have questions and thoughts on what we're telling them. Handle them with empathy and expertise. This will help with establishing trust and ensure follow-through.
Don't be afraid to use your best qualities to help patients be more comfortable. We're typically interacting with patients who are in pain or feeling discomfort, and the last thing we want is for our patients to view us as robots. To help them get the best outcome we need to connect with them, both as a person and as a patient.
Ask them about their day, their family and friends, their work, and their interests. You should know 3 things that are unrelated to their condition about each patient you see. Not only will these questions and conversations allow you to connect with patients, but it'll also inform your treatment decisions.
There are many other traits or strategies that we can use to help facilitate successful relationships with our patients, what do YOU think some of them are? Leave your ideas in the comment section below.
Brett Fischer, PT, DPT, is a practicing physical therapist in South Dakota. You can connect with him through his website or on Twitter at: @brettfischerDPT.