A physical therapist’s day has a certain predictability. There will be evaluations, treatments, consults, and paperwork. But the work also centers around people, who can be late, need extra help, or be in pain.
Along with the clinical expertise, the job requires the ability to handle the unexpected, not merely to readjust one’s schedule but also to take advantage of opportunities that will appear with little warning, as I’ve learned in my years as a physical therapist in an orthopedic outpatient setting. Do that well with these five daily habits, and experience less stress and a practice that’s more efficient, responsive, and productive.
1. Plan clients strategically.
If you’re in charge of your own scheduling, start Mondays by looking at the whole week and putting the right patients at the right times. For early morning appointments, higher energy patients are preferable — they’ll help kick-start the day. For overlapping patients, think about their respective needs. Pair patients who require more attention or energy, either as custom or because their condition has changed, with people who are more self-sufficient. If it’s not possible, try to make sure an aide is available to help.
If someone usually shows up early, be ready with warmups that can be done independently. Taking a weeklong view also lets you plan patients’ progression, based on both your and their goals. Accounting for as many probabilities as possible cuts down on scrambling and high-risk improvising.
At the end each day, print out the next day’s schedule and lay it out so you can see the flow, refresh your memory, and prepare. On Friday, map out next week’s plan of care. The time investment allows you to start strong on Monday and enjoy the weekend. Do this planning in a private area, or put on headphones to avoid disruptions and inevitable interruptions.
2. Maximize free time and lunch.
Every so often, an uncommitted 10 minutes pop up — a patient is late or is working independently. In those windows, I like to document daily notes. Staying on top of paperwork throughout the day not only makes the end of the day easier but also allows me to enjoy lunch away from my desk. Split the hour in half by working out for the first 30 minutes; showering and eating for the second. The specifics of the workout don’t matter, but anything involving intervals helps break a sweat quickly and loosen up the body. And by boosting your energy, and having eaten, the afternoon goes faster and your focus remains consistent.
3. Treat your body well.
The job is demanding and takes a physical toll, even as you learn better mechanics over time. One simple but often overlooked move is to adjust your table to the optimal height. Stand next to it with your arms by your side and wrists extended. Your palms should hover over the top. When they do, you’ll end up incorporating your arms and legs more and take stress off your hands and fingers. Along with that, it’s good to schedule downtime. Wednesday is a natural day to focus on your recovery by incorporating foam rollers, stretching, and basic stability work. And while it often seems like a luxury, treating yourself to a monthly massage helps decrease stress and tightness.
4. Know each patient.
Listening is a key skill, which is sometimes forgotten. It’s easy and sometimes understandable to lock onto the original injury as the cause of all symptoms. But good physical therapists realize that treatment can kick up other problems, maybe something long dormant, and the patient could be describing a new pain, which requires different treatment. It’s also good to clue into how patients learn. Some are visual. Some are auditory, and some are tactile. Words could be enough, but you might need to demonstrate a movement, if not physically position them. The more ways you explain or demonstrate an idea, the less frustrated you and your patients will be, making the appointment more productive.
5. Communicate honestly with your patients.
You want to be clear and straightforward about how long recovery could take and how much improvement patients should expect. Sometimes pain will go away. Sometimes it can just be decreased and then managed. One good thing to discover is what patients want to be able to do and ultimately what success looks like to them. It could be full motion on the court or the ability to pick up a coffee mug. Knowing their goal, and reminding yourself and them about it, can help you direct and explain the treatment and reduce frustration.
Another communication issue that comes up is that you’ll have two patients and one will need more attention. Even if you’ve scheduled wisely and have someone in who is self-sufficient, no one likes to feel overlooked. In this situation, say, “In 15 minutes, I have to focus on this person, but I’m going to be here and will be monitoring you.” The heads-up short-circuits resentment and builds trust and appreciation for the specific patient and all those who witness it.
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