A recent article identifies four questions that physical therapy patients have before their first session. These four questions help set patient expectations for the course of treatment. Answering these questions early on can establish trust, increase engagement, and improve their satisfaction with your treatment.
Managing patient expectations is a big part of rehabilitation. Patients arrive with questions about their injury and how you can help. This is especially true for clinics with direct access, where you may be the first healthcare provider a person talks to about their injury. A recent article identifies four questions that physical therapy patients have before their first session. These four questions help set patient expectations for the course of treatment. Answering these questions early on can establish trust, increase engagement, and improve their satisfaction with your treatment. Gaining an understanding of patient expectations will help steer your treatment plan and improve patient outcomes. Let’s dive into the four questions patients want answers to from their Physical Therapist.
What’s Wrong With Me?
Many patients will come into their appointments with the question, “what is wrong with my body, and why is it causing me pain?” Answering this is easier said than done, especially with the nature of referred and radiating pain. However, spending time addressing this will help relieve the patient’s anxiety of the unknown, which is common with any injury. Demonstrating a sense of compassion and care is extremely important for the first visit. In addition to instilling confidence in the patient, it helps them believe in and comply with the full plan of care.
How Long Will It Take?
We’ve all heard this one. It can be impossible to pinpoint when someone can fully return to function, but it’s what people want to know. Setting a general expected timeframe for pain duration can give patients a sense of hope and improve their overall satisfaction. Knowing that their pain will likely resolve within four to six weeks can assist patient buy-in and compliance within the program. It also opens the door to the possibility of involving other providers, if the pain doesn’t resolve within the expected timeframe.
How can I Help (as the Patient)?
Patients want to help themselves. They want to know what they can do to avoid further damage and achieve their goals. We can help by asking questions like, What makes your pain worse / better? Or, Can you help describe what you have been doing for your pain so far? Patients will gain a sense of confidence and empowerment over their treatment from getting reassurance that a lot of what they have previously done is OK!
Our patients are smart. Oftentimes, they’ll mention something in the history that tells how they can help themselves. Through this recognition, we can provide our patients a framework for what exercises will help or hurt.
How can You Help as the Physical Therapist?
This question seems simple, but many patients have never been to physical therapy before. They may not know what physical therapy interventions are available, or how they relate to their condition. You are the perfect person to explain this to them, and it goes a long way to improving engagement and retention.
Providing context regarding the type of injury, how long the expected recovery will be, and what interventions benefit this injury will help provide direction for the overall treatment plan.
This will help drive your plan of care and provide an understanding for your patient on just how we can accomplish their goals.
Most of our treatment plan is built from the history portion of the exam if we listen carefully. Through deep listening, we can gather the necessary information needed to outline an action plan. This will reaffirm your care for the patient and ability to assist in their recovery. Doing so will improve engagement, retention, and overall outcomes.
Advocating for the Practice
Interestingly, a fair number of patients in the study understood that Physical Therapists play an important part in their healthcare plan. However, they weren’t sure where PTs fit along the continuum. This is telling and reflective of the overall narrative of our roles as PTs within the healthcare system.
When I talk to my patients, they often fully understand the role of their Chiropractor, PCP, or acupuncturist – but have no idea what I do as a Physical Therapist. They understand that physical therapy is important (usually by talking to friends and family). However, they are unsure about when or why to see a PT. It is important for us to advocate for our practice. We must take time to answer to these four questions during visits to reinforce our purpose within the healthcare system and reassure our patients.
Diving into patient expectations will help us understand their wants and needs and help to improve patient outcomes and patient retention. As healthcare providers, we are primed for opportunities in improving our patients’ lives due to the simple fact that we can spend time with them. In a world in which doctors frequently have just a few minutes with each patient, we can spend quality time addressing important questions which often go unanswered during other appointments.
Making sure our patients feel heard will display a level of compassion and care that goes above and beyond what is assumed in the current state of healthcare. This will also help you address each patient’s specific goals in achieving a life without pain. Ask the right questions, and you may just unlock the key to success.
Justin Melson, PT, DPT
Justin Melson, PT, DPT is a Physical Therapist and freelance healthcare content writer. He has been contributing content since 2020 for numerous healthcare start-ups and healthcare magazines. Writing allows him to share information with a greater audience as well as blend his passion for healthcare and helping others. Feel free to reach out on: www.theptunicorn.com, LinkedIn, and UpWork.
- Subialka, J., et al. 2022. What do patients referred to physical therapy for a musculoskeletal condition expect? A qualitative assessment. Musculoskeletal Science & Practice. Vol 59. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.msksp.2022.102543