Physical therapists (PTs) work with patients during their recovery process after surgery or injury. As a physical therapist, you will help people regain or maintain mobility through treatments such as strength and stretching exercises, electrical stimulation, and manual therapy techniques. To become a successful physical therapist, you should consciously cultivate several traits. In this post, we address the essential qualities of a physical therapist and how working to develop these qualities can help you advance in your physical therapy career.
1. Be Realistic
Some conditions, such as chronic musculoskeletal disorders, are challenging to treat. Others, such as Parkinson’s disease, don’t have a cure. It’s important for you and your patients that you remain realistic about patient outcomes and that you don’t create or encourage unrealistic expectations in your patients.
2. Be Patient
It’s important to be patient with the treatment process and to remain calm and collected when working with challenging patients. Treatment timelines depend not only on the patient’s specific condition but also on their level of motivation, physical capacity, and more.
3. Be Collaborative
The best physical therapists recognize that collaboration is key, even if that’s in a virtual environment. You and your patients are on the same team and should ultimately have the same goals for their PT program. Encourage an open dialogue and always reflect on feedback you receive from your patients and peers. Cultivate a collaborative mindset about working with your colleagues in PT and other healthcare disciplines—working on a team with others is a great way to learn and grow, and interprofessional collaboration improves patient satisfaction ratings and health outcomes. ((Jordan Utley et al., Interprofessional Education and Collaboration: An Evidence-Based Approach to Optimizing Health Care. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics, 2020.))
4. Be Determined
As a physical therapist, you must be prepared to take on challenging cases and stay motivated. Even when patients feel like giving up, it’s important for you to stay focused on the process, encourage them to keep working, and remain determined to help them heal.
5. Be Resilient
An important quality in a physical therapist is resilience. As with most things in life, treatment in physical therapy is not a straight line; your patients will likely experience ups and downs. A resilient physical therapist is able to adapt and even respond positively to change and adversity.
6. Be Compassionate
In order to work in patient care, you must have compassion. Patients may be anxious about the treatment process, so having empathy and a good bedside manner are important components of making them feel comfortable and ready to work. A successful physical therapist truly cares about the well-being of their patients. They also ask the right questions to determine which treatment goals are most important to each patient.
7. Be Knowledgeable
People with a wide range of conditions, from joint injuries to neurological diseases, seek out treatment from physical therapists. As a PT, you must be able to draw on a wealth of knowledge—even if you ultimately decide to specialize in a particular area, such as geriatrics or oncology. A great physical therapist is constantly evaluating and staying up to date on advancements and best practices in the field. ((Will Hicklen, “10 Qualities of a Successful Physical Therapist,” ANKOTA, Oct 12, 2012: https://www.ankota.com/blog/bid/91998/10-qualities-of-a-successful-physical-therapist))
8. Have Integrity
It’s important not only to be open and honest with your patients, but also to do what you say you’re going to do. Integrity helps to foster a healthy relationship—one built on trust—between you and your patients. Excellent physical therapists consistently demonstrate professionalism and have strong ethical principles, including protecting patients’ privacy and acting in patients’ best interests at all times.
9. Be Respectful
Good physical therapists respect the wishes of their patients. Regardless of what you determine to be the best course of action, your patients will decide whether or not they will pursue the treatment options you recommend. You can offer your professional opinion, but ultimately you must respect the patient’s decision. In your therapy practice, you will be treating patients of all ages and all body types, from all walks of life. It’s important to address your patients with equal respect.
10. Be Communicative
Before evaluating your patient and developing a treatment plan, you will speak with the patient about their acute symptoms, as well as their current and aspirational levels of fitness and health. Being able to communicate skillfully is an important aspect of your role, as a patient who understands their care plan is more likely to succeed. ((Apollo, “10 Qualities of a Successful Physical Therapist,” Oct. 15, 2016: https://www.apollopracticemanagement.com/10-qualities-successful-physical-therapist/)) PTs should aim to educate patients using clear language, and ask questions to explore patients’ needs, so that communication flows in both directions.
11. Be Astute
Paying close attention to detail will help you detect any changes in the patient’s abilities. Since patients with the same injury can respond differently to treatment, it’s important to closely observe each patient’s progress and adjust your care plan accordingly, regardless of your own expectations. Remaining astute will help you determine the patient’s specific and evolving needs.
12. Be Positive
Working with people who are in pain, and even suffering, can be emotionally taxing. Having the capacity to remain positive, upbeat, and open-minded are great qualities to have as a physical therapist. Learning how to turn negatives into positives as much as possible, and being able to combat negative-self talk, will ultimately help you succeed.
Working on developing the qualities outlined above will help you become a successful physical therapist. If you’re interested in helping people regain their mobility and quality of life—and you’re a positive, compassionate person who communicates well—a career in physical therapy may be right for you. The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences offers physical therapy programs that will prepare you to work collaboratively with your colleagues and deliver optimal care.
The largest PT school in the United States*, the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers a hands-on physical therapy program. Practice with mock and real patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with a wide range of patients, as well as advanced roles in research, practice leadership, and policymaking. Residential and weekend-focused pathways are available.
*Based on total DPT degrees conferred, as reported by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Data is captured by IPEDS through interrelated surveys conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/