Essential Skills for Success: What It Takes to Be a Top Physical Therapist

What are the skills needed to be a successful physical therapist? If you’ve been through school to be a PT, chances are you’ve been trained in conducting patient assessments, evaluating strength and balance, and all the other clinical practices you need to help your patients meet their health and wellness goals.

But as any PT will tell you, the real education begins once you step outside the classroom and step into your first clinic. In this blog, we discuss a number of the skills that really only come with practice and experience.

Communicating Effectively with Patients and Families

One of the most important skills a therapist can cultivate is the ability to communicate clearly and intelligently with a patient.

“The first step in this is understanding that talking with patients is different from talking with a professional co-worker,” said Elyse Sallman, PTA, a Clinical Consultant at EmpowerMe Wellness. “It’s so important to keep your dialect understandable when you’re talking with people who aren’t clinical professionals. Especially when you’re trying to help them understand a potentially upsetting medical condition.”

According to Elyse, the best way to cultivate this skill is to listen in on other therapists’ conversations with patients and families. “It’s a great way to get ideas on how to communicate in ways that are easy for laypersons to understand,” she said.

Adjusting to Different Therapy Settings

In school, therapists get a broad sense of how to treat a patient, but it takes experience to take that knowledge and apply it to different populations. Depending on the setting you choose to work in and your patients’ demographics, the people you treat may come to you with vastly different diagnoses, not to mention different temperaments and expectations of care.

If you know where you’re going to be treating patients, consider job shadowing in advance of your start date to get a more thorough understanding of how their systems and processes work. Therapy students who know the kind of setting they want to treat in can choose courses that can give them additional insights on working with their chosen populations. And if you’re not sure what setting you’re most interested in, look around! Job shadowing in a variety of settings can help you get a sense for which population suits you best.

Patience with Patients

Patience is a virtue that schools don’t always teach, but it’s one that is absolutely crucial in the world of physical, occupational, and speech therapy. “I work in senior living, where people famously do things on their own timetable,” Elyse said. “It’s so important to approach every interaction with empathy and compassion and the understanding that some people take a little more time to understand what you’re trying to accomplish.”

One good method of working on patience skills is to think, “What if this person I’m serving were one of my own loved ones?” Then, imagine how you’d want caregivers to treat them in your place. This kind of roleplaying can be helpful as a reminder that everyone needs a little grace every now and again.

Problem Solving Skills

Many patients come to therapy with complex medical histories. Therapists are often expected to serve as detectives and sift through clues before deciding what assessments are needed and creating a skilled plan of care. “Some new grads find it hard to develop these kinds of analytical skills at first,” Elyse said, “but it does get easier with time.”

One tactic that helps new grads to foster these skills is mentorship. Some organizations — like EmpowerMe Wellness – offer opportunities to pair up with more seasoned therapists, who can provide guidance. EmpowerMe also has a dedicated Clinical Support team that provides a staff of coaches and a vast toolbox of resources to help therapists make sure their patients can reach their highest functional level.


Want to learn more about how EmpowerMe Wellness works with new therapy school graduates? Click here…or visit to join our team today!