Physical Therapist Skills: Definition and Examples

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published January 22, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Physical therapists are medical professionals who help individuals recover from injuries and illnesses by implementing mobility and other physical exercises and treatment plans. Physical therapists must have several skills to be successful in their positions, including communication skills and physical stamina. In this article, we explore what physical therapist skills are, examples of the most important skills for physical therapists, how you can improve these skills and use them in the workplace and how to highlight these skills throughout the job-search process.

What are physical therapist skills?

Physical therapists are movement experts who work with patients experience illness and injury to improve their conditions through the use of physical means. These medical professionals work with a variety of conditions including those related to the neurological, musculoskeletal and integumentary systems in the body. Physical therapy skills are the skills required by these individuals to perform their job successfully.

Physical therapist skills include both soft and hard skills. This means that physical therapists gain some physical therapy skills on the job or through training, while others are inherent. For example, physical stamina is something that can be gained with practice, while compassion is considered a soft skill and often comes naturally to individuals.

Examples of physical therapist skills

The following are examples of the most important physical therapist skills needed to be effective and successful in this position:

1. Communication skills

Physical therapists are in regular communication with patients and other members of the patient's medical team. They must be able to clearly communicate various pieces of information, such as how to perform a particular exercise, how to practice exercises at home and how family members can support the patient in their recovery. Physical therapists need strong communication skills that include active listening, oral communication, written communication, nonverbal communication and explanation skills.

2. Physical stamina

Physical therapists spend much of their day on their feet performing tasks that require both dexterity and stamina. They also often work with their hands to perform massages and prepare equipment for patient use. Examples of instances in which physical therapists would need physical stamina include when:

  • Showing various exercises to patients

  • Performing massages on patients

  • Setting up equipment for patient use

  • Applying resistance to patients' body parts as they perform exercises

3. Interpersonal skills

Interpersonal skills are an important component of being a successful physical therapist. Physical therapists must establish and foster relationships with patients as well as gain their trust as they help patients move through tough exercises. These professionals must also maintain a positive attitude when working with patients, as many patients are dealing with challenging conditions that result in pain and difficulty when performing exercises. Interpersonal skills allow physical therapists to maintain positivity, keep patients engaged and motivated and show genuine care and concern for patients.

Examples of good interpersonal skills that are beneficial for physical therapists include:

  • Motivation

  • Flexibility

  • Empathy

  • Patience

  • Responsibility

  • Dependability

  • Active listening

  • Teamwork

Read more: Interpersonal Skills: Definitions and Examples

4. Detail orientation

Physical therapists must keep detailed notes of their patients' conditions, the specific treatments they're using with the patient and the patient's progress during each physical therapy session. They need to be very detail-oriented in order to keep track of the patient's status and make adjustments when necessary to promote consistent progress. Examples of detail-oriented tasks physical therapists should be well-versed in include:

  • Keeping track of patient progress

  • Determining the pain tolerance of each patient

  • Monitoring patient vital signs

  • Observing patients as they move through exercises

  • Ensuring health and safety procedures and policies are followed during treatment

5. Compassion

Physical therapists often work with patients who are in challenging positions in both a mental and physical sense. They must be able to empathize with their patients to gauge how they are feeling and reacting to treatment. Physical therapists with good empathizing skills are also better able to relate to their patients, make their patients feel cared for and heard and motivate their patients to perform the treatments that will support their recovery.

Skills related to compassion that physical therapists benefit from include:

  • Collaboration

  • Motivation

  • Encouragement

  • A calm demeanor

  • Positive outlook

  • The ability to overcome patient resistance and setbacks

6. Time management skills

Physical therapists must have strong time management skills to be effective in their positions. They often have to handle several appointments each day, all of which include documentation of patient condition and progress and other administrative tasks related to a patient's visit. They must also keep up with the latest medical advancements to incorporate into their practice, stay up-to-date on continuing education courses (CEUs) and work with medical teams to provide patients with comprehensive care.

Examples of time management skills that support a physical therapist's job include:

  • Delegation

  • Organization

  • Prioritization

  • Stress management

  • Goal-setting

  • Planning

  • Communication

Related: 5 Key Tips for Improving Your Time Management Skills

7. Treatment planning

A major component of a physical therapist's job is creating and implementing treatment plans based on each patient's specific condition and needs. They must perform patient evaluations, conduct full physical therapy examinations and develop customized treatment plans based on their findings. They must also regularly update treatment plans to accommodate patient progress or setbacks.

6. Multitasking skills

Many physical therapists must perform several tasks at one time, such as giving patients instructions on certain exercises, modifying patient posture and observing patient response to the exercise. They may also help multiple patients at once and often work with minimal supervision. Multitasking skills allow physical therapists to keep track of and prioritize their duties will giving their patients the care and attention they deserve.

Examples of multitasking skills needed by physical therapists include:

  • Time management

  • Planning

  • Organization

  • Scheduling

  • Delegation

Related: The Art of Multitasking: Definition + 25 Examples

7. Leadership

Even if you aren't in a leadership role as a physical therapist, it's still important to possess leadership skills for this job. Strong leadership skills allow physical therapists to motivate their patients without the need to micromanage them, build strong relationships with patients, delegate tasks and coordinate with medical teams. Plus, many physical therapists work independently with little oversight from a supervisor or employer, so they must possess the self-motivation that strong leadership skills can provide.

8. Equipment knowledge

Physical therapists often use a variety of equipment in their daily practice and must know how to set up, use and clean this equipment. Examples of equipment used in physical therapy include ramps, resistance exercise bands, electrotherapy, ultrasound, hydrotherapy and various gym equipment. Some physical therapists also use virtual reality equipment to stimulate various muscles, add an element of creativity to physical therapy and stimulate the brain.

9. Technology skills

While much of what physical therapists do is related to physical exercises and therapies, many therapists also use various types of technology in their practice. Examples of technology a physical therapist may use include perceptual and sensory evaluation technology, medical software like Advantage Software Physical Therapy Advantage and rehabilitation robots.

10. Observation skills

Physical therapists need strong observation skills to keep track of patient progress and make adjustments when needed. They must be able to watch patients closely to ensure proper form, gauge patients' reactions to certain exercises to determine if they are too challenging and ensure patients are progressing in their treatment.

Good observation skills that physical therapists should possess include:

  • Attention to detail

  • Emotional intelligence

  • Critical thinking

How to improve physical therapist skills

The following are steps you can take to improve your physical therapist skills:

  1. Work with a mentor: Many physical therapists begin their careers by working with mentors. Mentors offer guidance, support and feedback for physical therapists and can teach individuals the skills needed to be successful in this career.

  2. Participate in continuing education: Your education as a physical therapist doesn't end once you obtain your license. Most states require physical therapists to participate in continuing education courses several times a year to maintain their licensure. These courses offer a great opportunity to further hone your physical therapist skills and stay up-to-date on the latest trends and technology in this field.

  3. Exercise: Because physical therapists need physical stamina to perform their daily duties, it's important to maintain an exercise schedule that will promote this stamina. Create a gym or workout schedule each week and focus on working muscles that are most important for physical therapists, such as leg and arm muscles.

Physical therapist skills in the workplace

Here are a few ways to demonstrate your physical therapy skills in the workplace:

  • Create a schedule: Because physical therapists must often multitask and work with several patients in a day, it's important to create and stick to a schedule. Determine the tasks that have the highest priority and put those at the top of your schedule. Be sure to factor in your patient appointments and a few minutes after each appointment to fill out paper and document patient progress.

  • Manage your time: Similar to creating a schedule, being able to effectively manage your time is another important component of being a physical therapist. Delegate tasks when possible and necessary and create an organized manner of doing things that makes it easier to move from one task to the next.

  • Practice empathy: A great way to demonstrate strong physical therapist skills is to practice empathy in all of your work affairs. Give each patient your full attention and notice how they are feeling and responding in relation to treatment. Try to empathize with their situation by putting yourself in their shoes.

  • Be a self-starter: Physical therapists must be self-motivated to be successful in their positions, as most physical therapists receive little guidance from supervisors throughout the course of their day. Set goals for yourself each day and work until you reach those goals. Keep track of your tasks and ensure they are all completed before you go home for the day. Take initiative whenever possible and try to see challenges as an opportunity for growth.

How to highlight physical therapist skills

There are several ways you can highlight your physical therapist skills throughout the job-search process. These ways include:

Physical therapist skills for resume and cover letter

You can emphasize your physical therapy skills on both your resume and cover letter to help set you apart from the competition and attract attention from recruiters and hiring managers. On your resume, create a skills section and include relevant physical therapy skills that are directly related to the job you're applying for. Scan through the job posting and make note of skills keywords mentioned, and incorporate these into your resume. Provide a quantifiable example of each skill you include.

On your cover letter, choose one to three physical therapy skills to highlight in the letter's body. Give an example for each skill that shows how you have used it in the workplace.

Physical therapist skills for the job interview

A job interview provides another opportunity to highlight your physical therapy skills. Many hiring managers will ask you questions directly related to your physical therapy skills, so be sure to arrive at the interview prepared with specific examples of how you've used your skills in the past. You can also bring up any skills not mentioned by the hiring manager.

Additionally, you can display soft physical therapy skills, like communication and interpersonal skills, during the interview. Practice active listening and speak clearly and concisely. Demonstrate nonverbal skills by maintaining eye contact and good posture and staying engaged while the other person is speaking.

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