6 Physical Therapist Communication Tips for Better Patient Care

Physical Therapists Have More Time With Patients Than Most Providers;
They Should Use It Wisely By Sharpening Their Communication Skills

Every interaction between a healthcare provider and a patient should be seen as an opportunity for the provider to learn as much about the patient’s condition and for the patient to express these details in the limited amount of time allotted. But as nearly any person can attest to, this clear exchange of information does not always occur, and some patients leave the visit confused and with more questions than answers.

Why is this so common in health care? The answer, of course, is complicated and multifaceted, but at the root of the problem is one very notable cause: poor communication.

Patients are Often Afraid

From a patient’s perspective, visiting a healthcare provider can be seen as a daunting or intimidating experience, especially if it’s their first time seeing the clinician or if they are dealing with a new condition. This fear may prevent the patient from speaking clearly, asking questions that arise during the visit, or letting the clinician know when they don’t understand something that’s been said.

Clinicians, on the other hand, are almost always crunched for time. According to one study, most doctors spend less than 16 minutes with patients, while only about one-third spend 17–24 minutes and only 11% spend more than 25 minutes. Other research has found that physicians tend to overreport the length of patient visits and that the average amount of time they spend with their patients is only about 10 minutes. This extremely limited window of time is perhaps the greatest barrier in effective patient-provider communication, as it often doesn’t allow enough space for patients to adequately describe their condition, concerns, and goals. Similarly, it prevents physicians to give detailed responses and for patients to have the time to process these responses before asking appropriate follow-up questions.

Why Physical Therapist Directed Care is Different

Physical therapists are in a unique position when it comes to patient-provider interactions. Unlike most physician visits, physical therapists typically spend far more than the average 10–15 minutes with each patient. This is most notable in the initial evaluation performed during the patient’s first visit, in which the therapist spends the better part of the 45- to 60-minute visit with the patient. Therapists also see patients more frequently than most other providers—usually 2–3 times per week—and each visit allows the therapist to check in with the patient’s progress and discuss any new issues.

For these reasons, physical therapists should take advantage of the rare opportunity they have for lengthy and ongoing relationships with their patients by prioritizing effective communication. Communication skills are rarely a focal point in physical therapy school, and while some physical therapists do learn these skills in the field, all physical therapists can benefit by improving their practice by learning how to communicate better in order to spend more quality time with their patients.

With that in mind, here are six tips to help you improve our communication skills with patients:

  • Know your audience: every patient is different from the next, and it’s your job to get to know each one through your interactions
  • Talk in their language: recognize how your patient communicates and adapt your treatment and speaking style accordingly; it also helps to determine what type of learner the patient is, which will make it easier to craft your message in a style they can understand
  • Listen to your patients; don’t just hear them: give your patient adequate time to speak and make it clear that you’re listening to them rather than merely hearing what they are saying; here are some ways to ensure you’re listening:
    • Maintain eye contact
    • Smile and/or nod to show that you understand what they’re saying
    • Use body language that suggests the patient is your focus
  • Be honest: clear and honest expectations from the first visit through the end of care is a great way to manage expectations, and when you keep a clear dialogue on what is expected by both parties, the opportunity for miscommunication is reduced
  • Keep it short and sweet: aim for clarity and brevity whenever you can, as overly verbose and complicated responses can easily confuse patients
  • Leave room for nonverbal communication: it’s perfectly fine for periods of silence to occur during a patient’s visit; allowing room for silence also opens the door for nonverbal communications like body language

Contact ACE to Learn More

At Applied Continuing Education (ACE), we consider clear communication with patients to be among the most important goals for physical therapists, and both of our physical therapy continuing education courses (“Weight Management for Rehab Patients” and “Shoulder Pain and Dysfunction”) are heavily focused on teaching ways to improve your communication skills with patients.

Learn More or Email Us

If you’re interested in learning more about our courses, review the ACE website to see if the courses align with your needs and values. You can also contact ACE at 781-229-8011 or info@physicaltherapyceus.com, as Mike and Justin are both more than happy to discuss our courses and answer any questions you might have.