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3 Ways to Be a Better Physical Therapist Today

by Kevin Prue


We all want to help people, and become better physical therapists. We go to conferences, talk to other physical therapists, go to continue education courses, and read articles like this one to accomplish those goals. As new grads, we can often go through cycles of confidence in our own ability. There are days when we feel on top of the world because we nailed that strange diagnosis, created an appropriate treatment plan, and that patient saw improvement in symptoms following the very first treatment. Other days, we can feel like we are doing everything right, but the patient just isn’t responding the way we would expect them to. If you feel like this, you are not alone. So how can we, as new grads, improve ourselves as physical therapists to have more good days then bad ones? Check out these 3 ways you can become a better physical therapist today.

1. Understand that you aren’t going to be able to help everybody

You’ve probably heard this saying from at least one of your professors in PT school. They were trying to share their wisdom with you, and it likely went in one ear and out the other (not intentionally; you probably had that big neuro exam on your mind). The truth of the matter is that professor was 100% correct. This is not a reflection of your skills as a physical therapist, or lack of experience. You just really can’t help everybody. Physical therapists have our own unique skill set and viewpoint to helping patients, just like physicians, dieticians, massage therapists and other healthcare professionals have theirs. There are some conditions or referrals that are going to come our way as physical therapists that we just cannot do much about. Maybe a patient has a bony abnormality on their calcaneus that has developed over years and we aren’t able to change that. We can work on mobility, flexibility strength, and maybe improve the patient’s symptoms and function, but ultimately we cannot correct that bony abnormality. Another example is a patient who does not want to participate in physical therapy. If a patient walks in the door, convinced that your services are not going to help, and they have their mind made up that they want an injection, surgery or other intervention, then it is going to be difficult to show that patient the benefits of PT. They may not be compliant, or they may not even show up to your appointments.

2. Know when to refer and to whom you should refer

Referring a patient to another provider can be difficult for a new grad. We feel like sending a patient to another provider, even another PT, amounts to failure. Again, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Maybe you just can’t reproduce that patient’s low back pain with any movements, and you think they might be appropriate for an MRI to rule out cancer. Referring a patient to another PT isn’t a poor reflection on your ability either. Maybe there is another physical therapist you know who is a competitive marathon runner, knows running injuries better than any clinician you know, and really has a knack for working with and helping runners quickly, while your specialty is vestibular rehab. Referring this patient to the other physical therapist will not only be the best way to help the patient, but it will also help you build a trusting relationship with that patient.

3. Understand that you have a wealth of knowledge to share with people, and when you don’t know something, know where to look for it

As a new grad, it’s not uncommon to question your knowledge or skills as a physical therapist, especially on those “bad days”. Remember, even as a new grad physical therapist, you still possess a wealth of knowledge that most of the general public does not have when it comes to knowledge of anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and pathology. Trust what you know, and do your best to handle patient situations and questions to the best of your ability. If you feel like you weren’t prepared to handle a situation or question adequately know where you can go to better prepare yourself for the next time. If the latest research or online databases aren’t helping, find a continuing education course. For example, if you find that you are consistently struggling with low back cases, ask fellow physical therapists what courses they recommend and try one or two out. As professionals, we should always be trying to improve our skills as physical therapists, and continuing education is a great way to go about it.


So you want to be a better physical therapist?

Being a physical therapist is a lifelong career. The day you stop caring about improving your skills in and out of the clinic, is the time that you should probably hang up the goniometer. Remember, you can’t help everyone and it’s okay to refer a patient when a situation doesn’t add up. Trust your knowledge, and if you don’t know something, know where to find the answer and how to be better prepared the next time you encounter a similar situation.

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