Important Skills for Physical Therapy Students

To rise to the top in your physical therapist or PT assistant program and excel in your career after graduation, learn how to cultivate the soft, hard, and online learning skills you’ll need.

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Kanika Sabhan

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Kanika Sabhan, DPT, has been practicing physical therapy for 2 ½ years at Brentwood Physio in Alberta, Calgary, Canada. Sabhan helps professional athletes as well as “everyday people” recover from injuries. Sabhan holds a Bachelor of Science in kinesiology from University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and a Doctor of Physiotherapy from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

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Last Updated: 02/26/2021
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Whether you’re considering enrolling in a physical therapy or physical therapy assistant program online or are already enrolled and looking for ways to boost your GPA and graduate at the head of your class, now is the time to learn how to succeed in PT. Learning these skills now is much better than looking back later on and wishing you had done things differently.

A physical therapist’s job entails creating recovery plans for patients involving stretching, strength training, exercises, and physical manipulation. To be able to do so requires a great deal of knowledge of the human body and how it works, but science is just a small part of what a successful PT and PT assistant needs to know. You also need to know how to communicate and motivate your patients so they will heal as quickly as they can. The job is a combination of hard and soft skills.

These days, it’s likely you will do at least some of your studies online. For a profession as hands-on as physical therapy, the hands-on component makes online learning a bigger challenge. This guide is full of practical tips for getting the most out of your PT or PTA education and making it easier for you to master all the necessary skills as you proceed — online and in person.

5 Key Soft Skills for PT Students

Soft skills may not appear on your PT or PT assistant resume. Still, they are as important to your launching a successful career as the hard skills you learn in physical therapy school. Your teachers and mentors as well as colleagues may provide some guidance. Here are five soft skills that are important in any profession, but particularly in physical therapy — where you’re seeing patients day in and day out — and tips on how to master them.

1. Communication

As a physical therapist, you need to be able to communicate clearly with your patients. You must be able to explain what you’re doing, and why, and what you expect of your patients in terms that they can easily understand. Getting your ideas across strengthens your relationship with your patients. When your patients believe they can communicate easily with you, they will be more confident in you and your skills as a PT or PTA. Some keys from the Harvard Public Health Review to being a better healthcare communicator include:

  • Maintain eye contact with your patients.
  • Pay attention to their body language.
  • Encourage them to ask questions if there is anything regarding their treatment that they don’t understand.
  • Use graphics or illustrations to show them exercises you want them to do at home between sessions.

2. Listening

This skill is the flipside of communicating. You need to listen to what your patients tell you about their injury and how they’re feeling to be able to help them recover and become pain free. When patients are convinced that you are really listening to them, they will have more confidence in your provider skills and be more eager to do the at-home exercises and stretches that you recommend and as often as you recommend they do them.

To learn to be a good listener, start in your PT program by listening carefully to fellow students and professors. As a PT professional, remember not to interrupt your patients when they are telling you something. As a student and a PT, ask follow-up questions that show you heard what was said even if you know the answer.

3. Critical Thinking

You need critical thinking skills to be able to help your patients reduce or minimize their pain, restore function, and prevent further injury. Among the key critical thinking skills you need are:

  • Information gathering.
  • Analysis.
  • Interpretation.
  • Problem-solving.

During every session with your patients, you need to assess what’s working and what’s not. You’ll then use your critical thinking skills to provide a fix for aspects of the treatment that may need adjusting. Critical thinking starts with gathering good data and learning as much as you can about the problem. Practice by talking to your teachers (when in class) and mentors (on the job) about how to best evaluate the evidence and find and implement possible solutions.

4. Compassion

You chose to pursue a career as a PT or PT assistant because you want to help others. But you must learn to show your compassionate side even on days when you might not feel much like it. When you are compassionate, your patients will be more comfortable working with you.

Research suggests that you can learn to be compassionate. You can show compassion by asking your patients specific questions about how they’re doing and showing you’re truly interested in their answers. 

  • Acknowledge their feelings, be kind, and offer words of encouragement whenever you can.
  • Do you see any progress? Say so.
  • Strive to understand where they’re coming from.

5. Time Management

The ability to manage time effectively is important in any job, but particularly so when your day is filled with seeing patients and sticking to a schedule. Time management requires that you learn to prioritize. The average PT session takes 30 to 90 minutes. You need to learn how to determine what’s most important in your patient sessions and what to do first, whether it’s recording body measurements, doing therapeutic exercises, etc. Additional important time management skills to acquire include:

  • How to make realistic task lists.
  • Learn when and what tasks on that list you need to delegate.
  • How to schedule and take needed breaks.
  • How to pivot, plan, and prepare for unscheduled interruptions to your schedule.

Other Important Soft Skills

In addition to the top skills, as a PT or PT assistant, you need to hone these soft (personal) skills:

  • Conflict resolution: You need to be able to quickly resolve conflicts that will inevitably arise at work — whether with colleagues, bosses, or patients. Knowing how to handle conflicts can help prevent patient errors.
  • Flexibility: Thanks to technology and society, things are changing in healthcare rapidly these days. If you’re flexible and open to new ideas and procedures, whether you’re fresh out of training or have been in the field awhile, you will rise to the challenges of things never staying the same.
  • Patience: Your patients are often highly stressed and worried about their ability to recover. As a result, they may not be as cooperative as you’d like. Your patience can help you deal with their less-than-ideal behavior and achieve the results you both desire.
  • Motivation: You need to not only be motivated to go to work every day with a smile on your face but also need to be able to motivate your patients so they can practice what you’re teaching them in order to heal. To motivate yourself, break your day into short goals. When reaching that goal is in sight, it’s encouraging.

5 Hard Skills for Students of Physical Therapy

Hard skills are those you learn in person or online in the classroom and through on-the-job training that are unique to your profession. Typically, you learn the hard skills you need to become a PT or PT assistant from such sources as your instructors, lab work, and videos or reading materials. Hard skills generally involve a specific set of steps and you must learn them all from beginning to end. When you’ve completed the courses that teach these hard skills, testing can prove whether you’ve truly mastered them.

1. Human Anatomy

To perform your duties as a physical therapist, you need a deep knowledge of many different science disciplines, including:

  • Anatomy
  • Biomechanics
  • Cardiovascular system
  • Exercise physiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Neuroscience
  • Pharmacology
  • Pulmonary systems

Most of what you need to know in these subject areas will be covered in the classroom. You also learn about these topics working in the lab and in your clinicals. Once you complete your studies, you will be required to pursue a residency or fellowship program to learn even more practical information in these subject areas that you will use in your job. Your knowledge of human anatomy will help you devise a recovery program for your patients that will help them to manage their illness and their pain and restore their movement.

2. Physical Stamina

Being a PT and PT assistant requires you to be strong and dexterous. Your job likely will require you to be on your feet much of your day, to bend and kneel quite a bit, and to be able to move patients some of whom may be larger than you. You need your hands to be able to perform therapeutic massages on your patients and to set up and work with your equipment including ultrasound and electrical stimulation machines.

To learn and build physical stamina, you need to get proper exercise, eat healthy, and get quality rest. You also need to find what relaxes you and take time to do those activities so you’re not overstressed. Part of your education is learning to nurture your body and your mind.

3. Diagnosis

Another critical hard skill that you must learn in physical therapy school is the ability to differentially diagnose patients, says Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT, who works as a physical therapist in  Livingston, New Jersey.

You must learn how to synthesize the patients’ symptoms and complaints with their medical history and the results of their physical exam. Very often, Dr. Gasnick says, patients come in with vague complaints and prescriptions from their doctor: “My shoulder hurts.” It’s up to you to tease out more information from them and to use your clinical knowledge to determine the cause of their injury and develop a plan of care to treat the problem effectively. This hard skill requires paying attention in class and while doing assignments and gets stronger with practice.

4. Technology

As a field, physical therapy, like many in healthcare, is ever-changing. It seems as though new equipment and technology is constantly being developed to help patients get back to a normal life more quickly. As their physical therapist, you need to learn about this new technology and when and how to use it properly. For example, rehab robots and virtual reality are but two recent examples of the latest technology used to help elderly patients and those with cerebral palsy or traumatic injuries gain mobility and strength.

As a PT or PT assistant, you can never stop learning about technology. And you should stay abreast of the latest in your field. Read medical journals, attend conferences, and follow social media of those who are leaders in the field.

5. Observation

In physical therapy, learning to be an observer is an important part of your job. You need to be able to accurately observe your patients when they are nearby and at a distance. Is their gait normal? Where is their flexibility lacking? You need strong observational skills so that you can understand what part of the patient’s body is not working correctly and how to make it better. As a student, you can learn what you need to look for by:

  • Paying close attention during demonstrations, lectures, and lab experiments.
  • Discussing your observations with your teachers and mentors.
  • Reading case studies.
  • Never being shy about asking questions, even if they seem silly at the time.

Other Important Hard Skills

  • Medical terminology: It’s important that you learn proper medical terms for the conditions and injuries you treat. You may not always use them with your patients because lay words can be easier for those not in the field to understand. It’s important that you have a grasp of your field’s vocabulary so that you can use its jargon to sound and act professionally with other healthcare professionals.
  • Healthcare professions:  It’s also helpful to learn about the other professionals with whom you likely will interact — chiropractors, orthopedic surgeons, physiotherapists, for example — so when they send you patients, you’re on the same page. You also are likely to work closely with occupational therapists, and it’s helpful to know what they can add that’s different to the care you provide. Where you focus on improving your patient’s ability to move, an OT focuses more on improving your patient’s ability to perform activities of daily living.

3 Online Program Skills PT Students Need

Even though physical therapy is very much a hands-on profession, you may want to take some  of your academic courses online. Some subjects, particularly those that require self-study and memorization such as medical terminology or physiology, work well on the web. You can do web-based exercises that help you understand the material and do web-based quizzes to test your knowledge of the material. You also can easily repeat modules if you need to solidify your understanding of the subject. You’ll need to master these three online learning skills to succeed in your online PT program.

1. Preparation

Well before classes are scheduled to start, familiarize yourself with your online classroom, including:

  • Make sure you have your login and that it works.
  • Review the syllabus for the course you’re taking in advance.
  • Familiarize yourself with assignments and what you’ll need to be able to complete them.
  • Make sure you have all those materials handy.
  • Mark class deadlines in your calendar.
  • Prepare for each online session similarly.

The better you prepare, the fewer “oh-no’s” you will encounter and the more easily you will be able to stay on track.

2. Self-Discipline

You need self-discipline to succeed in school whether it’s in person or online. However, maybe you need a bit more when it’s online because, if you’re studying at home, avoid distractions by doing the following:

  • Turn off your phone and music before class starts.
  • Put your computer in a space where you have the quiet and privacy you need.
  • Will you be hungry or thirsty before class is over? Stock up drinks and snacks so you don’t have to go to the kitchen during class.
  • Schedule breaks and rewards for good behavior to help keep you on track.

3. Pacing

Whether studying online or in person, you must grasp a lot of material as a PT student. Don’t rush through it all. Some online courses allow you to go at your own pace. You can use that option to your advantage.

Stop after each main point and ask yourself to repeat it. See if you can summarize the lesson. That’s a good way to know if you comprehend the material. If you can’t, hit rewind and go back over the material. You might need to search for another or better explanation elsewhere in the material you were given or a new source. If you rush through the material/class just to get to the end, you are doing yourself an injustice.

Advice from a Physical Therapy Graduate

Kanika-Sabhan
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Kanika Sabhan, DPT, has been practicing physical therapy for 2 ½ years at Brentwood Physio in Alberta, Calgary, Canada. Sabhan helps professional athletes as well as “everyday people” recover from injuries. Sabhan holds a Bachelor of Science in kinesiology from University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and a Doctor of Physiotherapy from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

What one hard skill did you learn that you’re finding invaluable in your day-to-day work?

Manual therapy skills proved to be invaluable. Manual therapy, also known as manipulative therapy, is a clinical skill used to treat musculoskeletal pain. Thankfully, a lot of my education was spent learning how to effectively knead and manipulate muscles and joints. I use these same skills every single day, with pretty much 90% of my patients.

What soft skills did you learn in school that you’re finding invaluable in your work as a PT?

One skill I was so thankful to have been taught in school was the art of the interview process. This is a skill that a lot of programs and schools seem to overlook. Near the later part of my degree, my school began a rigorous interview program, training the soon-to-be grads how to effectively communicate your skills to an employer. I found this to be incredibly helpful as after I graduated, I landed a few interviews and received job offers from all of them. I know some PTs who really struggled to land a job after school.

I can’t say for sure that this was a direct result of never receiving any interview training, but I imagine it played a significant role. Another invaluable skill that I learned in school was the importance of coming off as confident in front of a patient. I cannot stress how important this is for patient retention and patient referrals.

What was difficult about doing work for your DPT degree online? What helped to make it less so?

I think I can speak for the majority of new grads when I say that the hardest part about working online is motivation. I found it really helpful to create a strict schedule. This enabled me to stay on task so I could complete the coursework while still allowing time to enjoy life.

What computer skills do you need to be able to study PT online?

A fairly basic understanding of computers will help but it isn’t super necessary. Everything nowadays is super intuitive and easy to use. 

What communication skills do you need to be able to work well with patients?

The ability to empathize with a patient is crucial. Patients want to feel heard; they want to feel like their complaints are valid. Once I got some work experience, I was surprised to find that some patients just needed someone to hear them out, quite often these individuals required very little treatment and recovered quite quickly.

How do you learn these hard and soft skills if you’re studying online?

Great teachers make great students. I was really lucky to have some incredible teachers which helped me land some great practicum and volunteer positions. I was able to hone my skills at these clinics. I even found some success doing virtual physical therapy. This really tested my understanding of core problems for the better as I wasn’t able to rely on my manual skills to diagnose. 

How can you hone what you learn in school once you’re on the job?

Find yourself a mentor with lots of experience. I was really fortunate to land a mentorship with the owner of a clinic where I work. She has been practicing as a physical therapist for over 30 years. I would add that one of the best parts about being a physical therapist is that you are constantly learning. With that being said, having a solid foundation before you enter the workforce will prove to be very beneficial for building up a caseload. The bigger your caseload, the more injuries you see and the more experience you will get treating these injuries.