4 Signs of a Good Physical Therapist

Over the last 40 years in our physical therapy practice, we’ve met and worked with hundreds of different physical therapists. Many of them are excellent across the board, some resonate with certain personality types best, and some do particularly well in certain areas.

Though this topic is somewhat subjective, there are certain qualities to look for to ensure that you’re working with a good physical therapist.

Signs of a good physical therapist are that they:

  • Listen and communicate well
  • Their approach is personalized
  • Their attitude is positive
  • Their treatment plans produce real results

Below, we’ll elaborate on what we mean by each of these signs, and further discuss some qualities of a good physical therapist to watch for as you’re making your decisions.

What makes a good physical therapist?

In order for physical therapy to work, you’ll want to ensure a good patient-therapist fit. Though this list is by no means exhaustive, here are the top 3 signs of a good physical therapist to look for:

1. They listen and communicate well

One of the most important signs of a good physical therapist is that they can communicate and listen well. If you’re performing exercises that don’t make sense to you, or you don’t understand the why behind the different activities you’re performing, it’s far less likely that you’ll achieve the kind of superior outcomes that we’re after.

Like a lot of the factors on this list, this one is subjective. Ask yourself:

  • Do you feel that when you raise a concern to your therapist, they take it seriously?
  • Did they really understand what you meant?
  • Did they make appropriate modifications to your treatment plan based on your feedback?
  • If they decided not to change the treatment plan, could they clearly articulate to you why it was important to stay the course?

2. Their approach to patient care is personalized

No two patients are exactly the same. How we perceive pain can vary dramatically (see our article on pain science to learn more), the rates at which we recover are different, and the ways in which our previous experience informs our current perceptions can have a huge effect on the rehabilitative process. Additionally, factors like patient age, injury history, and attitude can all play a role.

For this reason, we believe that giving identical physical therapy programs to two patients just because they present the same symptoms is the wrong approach.

A good physical therapist knows this – they can work within the boundaries of the patient’s limitations while presenting unique options to them, take their feedback, make adjustments, and continue on until a patient is recovered enough to continue on their own.

3. Their attitude is positive

We won’t lie – being a physical therapist is a physical job (pun intended). We’re on our feet for a lot of the day, we’re dealing with many personality types, and at the end of the day, we’ve often got a lot of medical notes to complete before heading home.

One of the best signs of a good physical therapist is one who can maintain a positive attitude and come across cheerful and helpful despite their busy schedule and the physical nature of their job.

4. They get real results

Last, but not least, all the positive attitude in the world is worthless if the treatment plan doesn’t actually help you recover. You came in because something was affecting your quality of life; out most important goal should be to fix that and help you maintain it over the long term.

Within 2-3 weeks of your initial appointment, you should be seeing some progress. Within 4-6 weeks, you should be feeling significantly better.

In general, appointments should leave you feeling fresh and mobile, even if your pain has been slightly aggravated during the therapy session. However, if after a month or two, you’re not feeling significantly better, you may want to discuss that with your therapist so that together you can assess why the physical therapy hasn’t been working for you so far.

Note that there’s a caveat here – we often tell people that things might feel “worse” before they feel better. This is because we’re going to be exploring unused ranges of motion in joints you may have been protecting and babying since your pain began. So, we encourage you not to judge your treatment plan too harshly within the first couple of appointments.

Qualities of a good physical therapist

From our end, we look for certain qualities in our therapists that are predictive indicators that they’ll be good physical therapists. Though this list isn’t exhaustive, we hope it’s helpful in choosing a physical therapist that fits your needs:

  • Knowledge and Expertise: They must know their subject matter, and if they don’t know something, they need to know how to find the correct information.
  • Excellent Communication Skills: As discussed above, a physical therapist needs to be able to communicate with patients in a way that the patient understands. Heavy reliance on medical jargon in patient interactions is often not a good sign.
  • Physical Stamina and Strength: Standing on our feet all day, interacting with patients, and demonstrating exercises all take a measure of coordination, physicality, and stamina.
  • Empathy and Compassion: At our core, we are in a helping profession. If a physical therapist doesn’t have the heart to serve others and see them grow, they’ll likely struggle in their job.
  • Patience: Sometimes a patient takes three steps forward, and then two steps back. Sometimes a patient takes a few weeks to show progress. Sometimes patients take a little longer just to fully grasp the way an exercise is meant to be performed. Just as patients need to allow the process to work, so does the therapist.
  • Professionalism (and Ethical Behavior!): Our heart goes out whenever we hear of a physical therapist being unethical. Though this isn’t the norm, a physical therapist needs to understand the importance of ethical behavior, professional boundaries, and good relationships with colleagues, administrators, and patients alike.
  • Continuous Learning: New science is being performed constantly. In some cases, the way we looked at certain things 15 years ago has little bearing on how we look at it now. A good physical therapist should be continually learning and updating their knowledge.

What if my therapist doesn’t fit the criteria above?

While we hope this article has been helpful, it’s important to remember that no therapist is perfect. Though there may be bad physical therapists out there, it’s far more typical for each therapist to be a mix of varied traits.

Of course, the most important thing to evaluate is whether you’re getting better. If you are, then it’s likely that the therapist is doing their job well. If not, then it may be a good time to discuss your concerns with your therapist.

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