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Four ways better communication can improve your physical therapy practice

Physical therapy is, by definition, a hands-on healthcare profession. To truly understand a patient’s condition and develop a plan of care that will help them get better, many times you have to be able to see them and touch them—to put the “physical” into the therapy you provide.

Terry Gebhardt, PT, DPT, and partner at Colorado in Motion in Northern Colorado, isn’t going to argue with that premise, but like a lot of PTs, he also believes his hands can only get him so far. Also on his list of critical clinical skills? The ability to engage each patient in a conversation about their personal rehab needs and goals.

“A big part of the treatment plan for all of our patients is asking them what their expectations are, what they hope to get out of physical therapy,” Gebhardt says. By listening to what his clients have to say, and then talking about what they’ll have to do together in order to ensure those expectations are met, he can develop a care plan that research shows is more likely to succeed on all accounts, he explains.

Focusing on clear and effective communication is a good way to improve patient satisfaction, Gebhardt adds. And because it can lead to better outcomes, “it also helps our practice in a program like MIPS through increased reimbursement for better performance.”

Here’s a closer look at why good communication is so important in physical therapy, and at some of the ways Gebhardt and his colleagues are using it to improve their practice.

Provide better care

The better you get to know your patient, the easier it is to create a care plan that matches their needs and delivers results. Don’t assume that because your client is an ex-athlete they want to get back to competitive cycling or running marathons. Instead, ask them what they’re hoping to accomplish, and then tailor your program accordingly. “I think a lot of physical therapists just do what they think is right and figure their patient will be happy,” Gebhardt says. The problem is what happens when they are not. “You might not know until they fall off the schedule.”

Increase patient engagement

When you’re on the same page with your patient, you can frame your care plan as a partnership where everyone is responsible for making progress. Patients who know their path to success requires compliance with their home-exercise program will be much more likely to take that responsibility seriously—and tell you when they’re having trouble keeping up. “In follow-ups, we always ask the patient directly what they feel is working and what is not,” Gebhardt says. They then use that to make changes as needed, “to ensure we’re still moving in the right direction.”

Improve patient satisfaction

The therapists at Colorado in Motion have 35 to 40 minutes to spend on each appointment, Gebhardt notes. Contrast that to what a patient might get with their other healthcare providers, and he sees it as an opportunity to really set physical therapy apart. “It’s not unusual for me to spend the entire time just talking to a patient about pain, for example. It’s about building the kind of relationship that’s increasingly rare in healthcare.”

Attract new business and drive revenue

Colorado allows direct access to physical therapy, Gebhardt explains, so he and his colleagues turn to communication to improve their patient outreach. “Our approach has always been to educate the consumer, one at a time, with, ‘Hey, if you hurt your back or your knee, you can come see us directly.’ We’re really trying to shift the consumer mindset to see physical therapy as their first point of care.”

Similarly, Gebhardt says, their satisfied patients often help them out by writing great online reviews, or by simply speaking out about their care experience to their friends and families. “That’s when we know we’re doing things right,” he says. “When so much of our new business comes from word-of-mouth.”