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8 Critical Skills to Build the Perfect Physical Therapist

December 27, 2015


physical-therapist.jpgI led a discussion recently with fifty second-year physical therapy students. They have all been through a few clinical rotations, and are only a few months from starting their careers. It’s always fun to spend some time with healthcare providers during their training, be it physicians, nurses or allied health professionals – during a time that their entire focus is on absorbing all of the knowledge and skills they can.

The topic was behavioral skills necessary for success. What had they learned in their interactions with patients, families, and other professionals? We started by talking about the concepts of healthcare reform and patient-centered care and what they mean for individual providers and healthcare staff.

Then I asked them to come up with a list of the skills and attributes they thought were necessary to be a great P.T. I told them to “build” the ideal therapist, but they could NOT include clinical or technical skills on the list. We would assume that this ideal therapist had all of the knowledge and skills they needed.

To their credit, they got the concept right away as they listed attributes including:

  • Flexibility – We talked about all of the changes occurring in how they practice, including policies and procedures, in finding new ways to do more with less.

  • Positivity – I’ve found that therapists, as a group, are incredibly positive, particularly with patients. What they hadn’t thought about, though, was positivity in discussions with colleagues, in meetings and when solving problems.

  • Accountability – The best clinicians never just go through the motions. They feel a deep sense of accountability to their patients, their teammates, the referring physician, and the entire organization.

  • Interpersonal skills – I think we concluded that, assuming a baseline of clinical skill, being a good therapist is all about communication. The ability to understand and motivate patients, to work well with physicians and the rest of the provider team, and to communicate effectively in sometimes emotional or stressful situations, is critical.

  • Creativity – In solving practical problems, in finding new ways to communicate and new ways to engage patients in their care.

  • Time management skills – Considering the practical challenges of providing high-quality care, while also fulfilling the other responsibilities of the job - even a therapist with the best clinical skills, can’t really help patients if she can’t effectively deploy those skills.

  • Decisiveness There are situations when the only way to gain the confidence of a patient or colleague is to be decisive and to convey confidence. This doesn’t come naturally to highly caring clinicians who may have less than forceful personalities.

  • Compassion – To do the job well, to put the patient first, everyone agreed that empathy and compassion are critical. But the group also realized that compassion can’t negatively impact clinical decision-making. As relatively new clinicians, they’d all seen patients and families in very trying situations and sometimes it’s hard to keep those emotions in check. Also – compassion is not enough. Just caring is not enough. That caring needs to be combined with a level of self and social awareness that allows the clinician to effectively convey compassion – verbally and non-verbally.

We also introduced and discussed the concept of emotional intelligence and its role in their success. To assist in the discussion, each student had taken the Select C.A.R.E.S. Assessment – a short, developmental assessment that gives the user insight into his or her own natural behavioral tendencies so that he or she can make small changes that will positively impact the patient experience. The C.A.R.E.S. Assessment evaluates Compassion, Awareness, Regulation, Emotional Intelligence and Safety behaviors, in a healthcare context and generates recommendations, based on the profile, that will improve interactions with colleagues and patients.

Any student preparing to work with patients would benefit from these types of discussions and, more importantly, needs to develop the habit of constantly evaluating and improving these key behavioral skills. And it’s not too late for practicing clinicians, either. I’ve never worked with a physician, nurse, or other provider who didn’t realize the importance of these skills but didn’t always have the tools to help them to improve. Given all that hospitals and health systems are trying to accomplish – it’s time to recognize the role of behavioral skills and take them into consideration during selection and development of staff at all levels.


Bryan Warren Bryan Warren is the President of J3 Personica, a consulting, assessment, training, and coaching firm, and a guest blogger for PSI. Bryan is an expert in progressive talent strategies, with a particular focus on leader and physician selection and development.