May 10, 2023

9 Key Lessons They Don't Teach You in Physical Therapy Schooling

Remember your Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) days? You probably recall courses covering biomechanics, neuroscience, pharmacology, and clinical work. Important stuff? Absolutely. Educational? No doubt. Does it cover everything you need to run your practice? Well, that's up for debate.

Once you've aced the PT school foundations, you will need more than traditional physical therapy schooling to cut it. The next phase is turning your PT degree into a successful occupation. 

We have the lessons you need to know post-grad to master being a PT in the real world. 

What Physical Therapy Schooling Didn't Teach Me


While physical therapy schooling taught me the fundamentals of the profession, it did not prepare me for the day-to-day realities of the job. I had to rely heavily on my clinical experience and on-the-job training to develop my skills.

Here are the most important lessons that I never learned through schooling for physical therapy:

#1 Utilizing PT Software

Applying your PT skills is only as good as the tools you use to implement them. There are approximately 38,800 physical therapy clinics currently operating in the US, of which 36% are private outpatient clinics/offices. Many clients seek treatment from private practices, making efficient software essential for successful day-to-day operations.

When you're looking for PT software, make sure you prioritize finding these key features: 

  • Streamlined billing: Automating billing processes reduces errors, facilitates paperless invoices, and minimizes frustrations when dealing with insurance reimbursements.
  • Efficient online scheduling: Allowing patients to book appointments online minimizes phone calls and administrative tasks. 
  • Telehealth capabilities: Telehealth services facilitate remote consultations and treatments, benefiting patients with limited access to physical therapy clinics or residing in rural areas.

These are just some examples of what to look for. Ideally, find a patient management platform with countless features to provide an all-in-one solution for your PT services. 

#2 Combining Clinical Expertise and Patient Communication

Clinical practice is crucial for success in the PT industry. While technical skills and knowledge are important, there's more to maximizing patient care. Today, PT clinical excellence should be coupled with strong interpersonal skills, including effective patient communication and empathy. 

These skills are vital for: 

  • Building trust with clients: Check out this article by The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) on how PT providers build strong patient relationships. 
  • Fostering patient satisfaction: Actively listening to patients' concerns and addressing their needs creates a supportive and empathetic environment that can greatly enhance patient satisfaction.
  • Enhancing patient outcomes: Creating personalized plans, fostering collaboration with patients, and extending support beyond the clinic walls can significantly enhance patient outcomes.

Effective communication, along with clinical knowledge, helps PT providers understand patients' needs, concerns, and preferences, delivering personalized and patient-centered care.

#3 Implementing Soft Skills

Soft skills or interpersonal skills are essential for a successful career in physical therapy as they shape the therapist-patient relationship and contribute to positive patient care and outcomes.

Let's explore a few examples that highlight the impact of soft skills on patient care and outcomes.

Example #1: Sarah, a physical therapy patient, struggled with chronic back pain. Despite trying different treatments, she felt frustrated. But her physical therapist, who listened and empathized, restored her hope. By understanding her concerns, the therapist developed a personalized plan addressing physical and emotional well-being. 

Example #2: John, a pro athlete, suffered a severe knee injury, risking his career. His physical therapist carefully listened to grasp John's goals and concerns. The therapist then offered advanced rehab techniques while motivating John during recovery. Through skillful treatment and emotional support, John triumphantly returned to his sport, exceeding his prior performance.

You can practice enhancing your people skills daily by seeking patient feedback and keeping appointment notes.

#4 The Importance of Networking

Traditionally, physical therapists (PTs) networked at conferences, workshops, and local events to connect with colleagues, industry professionals, and potential employers. However, in the digital age, networking for PTs has evolved with the internet and online platforms, offering new ways to connect, access resources, and connect with peers worldwide.

Here's an overview of online PT networking opportunities.

Use social platforms: 

  • LinkedIn: Connect with colleagues, join industry groups, and share insights in the professional network for PTs. 
  • Twitter (X): Engage in discussions, stay updated, and follow influencers, organizations, and conferences.
  • Facebook Groups: Connect with like-minded professionals, share experiences, and join specialized PT communities.

To build a strong online presence as a PT:

  • Create a professional profile on LinkedIn, showcasing your skills and experience.
  • Attend virtual conferences and webinars to learn from industry leaders and expand your network.
  • Contact PT influencers and organizations on social media platforms for further connection and knowledge sharing.

Should you still attend face-to-face networking? Absolutely! But broaden your horizons by utilizing online platforms for networking, collaboration, learning, and career advancement in the physical therapy community.

#5 Creating a Personal Brand

In physical therapy, a solid personal brand sets you apart, boosts credibility, and builds a positive reputation. By showcasing expertise and unique strengths, it positions physical therapists as influential leaders in their industry.

To build a personal brand in physical therapy, consider:

  • Seek mentorship: Find experienced physical therapists or industry professionals as mentors. They offer guidance and insights and shape your professional journey.
  • Continued education: Keep up with the latest research, techniques, and industry trends. It shows you're committed to growth and positions you as a pro!
  • Leverage social media: Share bite-sized educational content, tips, or case studies. Utilize features like LinkedIn articles, Twitter threads, or Instagram carousels to provide valuable information to a broader audience.

To strengthen your PT brand, engage in speaking events, seek professional recognition, and earn awards. Investing in these activities enhances your professional reputation.

#6 Understanding Patient Diversity

Every patient is unique, and treating them all the same won't make them feel valued. It's important to recognize their individuality and provide personalized care. Each client has a distinct goal of recovering from injuries, improving athletic performance, or managing chronic conditions.

Customize your approach to each patient in a curated manner. Here are a few examples:

  • Make individualized treatment plans: Customize exercises and therapeutic techniques to match their objectives, abilities, and limitations. Offering personalized care ensures patients feel heard, understood, and supported throughout their rehab journey.
  • Acknowledge cultural expectations: Cultural backgrounds significantly influence patients' treatment expectations and perceptions. Some patients may have different beliefs, values, or preferences regarding pain management, exercise, or holistic approaches. Understanding and respecting these cultural nuances is vital for building trust and delivering patient-centered care.

By assessing each individual and listening to their expectations, you can give each patient a diverse experience.

#7 Never Stop Learning

Being curious or having a thirst for knowledge can help you stay up-to-date with advancements and adapt treatment approaches for the best possible care. It shows that you're in the loop with the latest trends in the PT industry.

Using one of these traditional practices? If so, it’s time for an update: 

  • Passive modalities: Older treatments relying on passive modalities like hot packs, ultrasound, or electrical stimulation are less effective. Current evidence backs active interventions, exercise-based therapies, and patient education for better outcomes.
  • Bed rest for musculoskeletal conditions: In the past, bed rest was commonly advised. However, research demonstrates that early mobilization, exercise, and movement are crucial for optimal recovery and functional improvement.

There are a few ways you can keep expanding your knowledge. You can read peer-reviewed journals, attend virtual or in-person workshops, or join the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). By always learning, embracing change, and adjusting treatment approaches when needed, you can deliver top-notch care and enhance patients' overall outcomes.

#8 Always Give a Human Touch

Even though we're living in a world that's all about AI these days, when it comes to meaningful and compassionate patient care, nobody wants a robot to converse with them. People seek healthcare providers who truly want to support their recovery and help them achieve their goals. 

Harness the power of words as a therapeutic tool for a positive impact in:

  • Enhanced patient engagement: Good communication is key to getting patients engaged and involved in their care. When patients feel heard, understood, and respected, they're more likely to work with their therapists for better treatment outcomes.
  • Improved adherence: A clear and empathetic dialogue with your patients helps them understand their treatment plans and expectations. When patients understand their roles and responsibilities, they are more likely to follow through with prescribed exercises, lifestyle modifications, and appointments.
  • Trust and therapeutic alliance: Positive rapport builds trust and strengthens the therapeutic alliance between therapists and patients. This trust enhances patient satisfaction and facilitates open dialogue, ultimately improving the quality of care provided.

By recognizing the influence of personalized dialogue and using it effectively in patient care, you can create a supportive and empowering environment that leads to better patient outcomes and overall satisfaction.

#9 Stay Updated on Your Anatomy Knowledge

Based on a recent research report, practicing physical therapists found their anatomy education sufficient and relevant, with few suggestions for improvement. Having this mindset can hinder your PT expertise from reaching its full potential.

Maintaining up-to-date knowledge of anatomy comes with many benefits, including:

  • Enhanced clinical reasoning: Understand anatomy to analyze patient conditions effectively and make informed decisions for diagnosis and treatment planning.
  • Improved patient communication: Explain complex concepts simplistically, engaging patients in their care.
  • Adaptability in practice: Stay updated with evolving research and adjust treatment approaches based on the latest evidence and best practices.

By dedicating time and effort to expand their knowledge in this area continually, you can provide the highest quality of care and improve patient outcomes.

Stay Connected With Your Physical Therapy Schooling and Beyond

So, what do you learn in physical therapy school? The answer is obviously a lot. However, what you learn through physical therapy schooling is not nearly enough for running a successful PT practice.

Your PT education equips you with the skills to provide relief for patients with injuries, preventive care, and prescribe recovery programs. But we know now that’s just half what you need when you’re ready to begin your PT journey. 

Remember that there’s still work to do after you close those textbooks. Prioritize establishing an authentic brand that mirrors your PT expertise and influential network, shows your commitment to modern PT software utilized by PTs nationwide (PtEverywhere), and, most importantly, shows the specialized treatment and communication you give your patients.