Blog Post

5 Nonclinical Skills Every PT Should Have

Improve your nonclinical physical therapy skills with these tips and watch your professional career blossom in 2021.

Melissa Hughes
5 min read
March 5, 2020
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Physical therapists are at the forefront of modern musculoskeletal knowledge and expertise—and it’s no wonder why. PT and DPT programs drill into the finer points of neurorehabilitation and musculoskeletal disorders, and active clinical practice keeps those skills fresh—requiring PTs to tap their vast array of scientific knowledge with each and every patient. But, successfully treating patients and running a clinic takes more than just a robust understanding of the human body. The most effective PTs have a fully developed set of nonclinical strengths that they can whip out at a moment’s notice. 

What types of nonclinical physical therapy skills should PTs have?

Any skill that’s not medical in nature is, technically, a nonclinical skill. But being skilled at, say, driving a car isn’t going to help you in your clinical practice (unless you help ferry patients to and from their appointments). That’s why it’s so important to identify the skills that specifically apply to your role in your practice—or any professional role you aspire to. 

Luckily, PTs are in a great position to establish and refine a host of nonclinical skills. In fact, according to Meredith Castin, PT, DPT, founder of The Non-Clinical PT, “Many of our most valuable nonclinical skills come naturally from our time in patient care. Our ability to prioritize tasks, problem-solve in an iterative fashion, educate, collaborate, and negotiate are just a few of those key skills we build in the clinic.” But, let’s start with some basics: the general skills that every PT should have in his or her toolbelt.

1. Interpersonal Skills

Every single job in the world requires some degree of communication. Some roles may be light on interpersonal interaction (clerical work, for example), but the ability to cooperate and collaborate will eventually become essential—for everyone. 

That’s why interpersonal skills are so important for PTs—and really, any professional—to have down pat. These interpersonal skills include (but are not limited to): 

  • active listening, 
  • the ability to motivate others, 
  • patience, 
  • empathy, 
  • a knack for negotiation, and
  • a strong penchant for teamwork. 

These skills greatly impact PTs’ ability to achieve daily success. A penchant for teamwork and active listening can help you strengthen relationships with coworkers and referring physicians. When you actively listen, you’re better able to tune into the wants and needs of your peers—and a complementary splash of teamwork will help align focus and keep relationships harmonious. Externally, patience and a knack for negotiation are invaluable when communicating with payers. These skills can help you negotiate better contracts and understand (and even prevent) claim denials.   

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Additionally, the ability to motivate and empathize with others can help PTs form deeper, more trusting connections with their patients. This can increase patient buy-in, which means patients will be that much more likely to complete their HEP and make it to discharge. 

How to Get Personal (in a Good Way) 

The good news is that interpersonal skills come naturally to most PTs. Empathy, altruism, and an inherent desire to help people are often the traits that lead people to a PT career in the first place—which means that most are already adept at working with others. But unless you’re Mother Theresa, there’s always room for improvement. 

The best way to work on your interpersonal skills is to focus on self-awareness, monitoring yourself as you interact with people and giving yourself time for introspection (e.g., “Why do I always act snippy with John Smith?”). Reframing—or trying to look at a situation from another perspective—is also a powerful tool when workshopping your interpersonal skills. Just take a look at an example from this article: 

“If a person is snippy, we might decide that they ‘have an attitude problem.’ If we reframe that assumption and approach them through the lens of, ‘they are going through a hard time,’ we will be much more effective.” 

You never know what crucial information you could be missing when you engage with another person. You may also want to consider attending a workshop or conference session focused on interpersonal skill improvement.       

2. Writing Capability

Okay, I may write for a living, but I promise this isn’t a biased suggestion (well, not that biased). Believe it or not, writing is a critical skill that PTs use every day. You write out treatment details in your documentation. If you don’t have a high-tech HEP setup, then you write out your HEP instructions. You write emails to your patients, coworkers, payers, and referral sources. And if you help out with any of your clinic’s marketing or sales efforts, then you probably do even more writing than your colleagues. 

What I’m getting at is that writing is a universal skill that transcends job roles. You may not be churning out blog posts day in and day out, but no matter who you are or where you work, you write something every single day. That’s why it’s so critically important that PTs are at least passably skilled at writing. It’s not like you have to be the next Charles Dickens; you just need to be able to clearly and effectively communicate with the people you encounter in your day-to-day (e.g., patients, payers, or auditors). 

How to Write Better 

You may have heard this before (I’ve personally heard it at least a hundred times), but one of the best ways to write better is to read more. Now, I’m not saying that tearing through the next book you see will make you a writing savant—rather, you should try to read a wide variety of high-quality content. The “variety” component is very important here, because as you read, you’ll begin to subconsciously absorb and replicate the stylistic choices of the content you’re reading—and that’s exactly why it will help you improve your writing. In an interview from 1999, J.K. Rowling was quoted as saying, “Everything you’ve seen, experienced, read, or heard gets broken down like compost in your head and then your own ideas grow out of that compost.”

So, if you don’t want to sound like a carbon copy of your favorite publication, and you want to give your creativity a chance to blossom, try to read content from multiple sources. Additionally, look for opportunities to practice writing. Does your clinic need a blog? If so, offer to lead the charge—or, if you don’t feel comfortable taking the helm, try to contribute once a month. 

3. Marketing and Sales Savvy 

Okay, I’m admittedly rolling two wide, vast sets of skills under this one label, but both revolve around attracting and retaining new patients. We’ve written extensively about why PTs need to hone in on their marketing and sales savvy, but it basically boils down to this: you must market your clinic and sell your services to patients in order to keep your doors open. 

How to Become a Better Marketer and Salesperson

These skills are admittedly the hardest for PTs to pick up, because they’re a far cry from the clinical skills therapists learn in PT school—and they don’t naturally fall under a PT’s daily work scope. In other words, unlike interpersonal skills and writing, they’re not easy to practice. So, if PTs want to improve their marketing and sales prowess, they must make a concerted effort to use and hone these skills on the daily (or at least semi-occasionally). 

“To gain such skills,” Castin suggests, “You can volunteer to run the company blog or social media channels, or you can lead outreach initiatives with referral sources.” (Her first suggestion—blogging—will help your writing skills, too. It’s a regular ol’ twofer!) You can also attend workshops or conferences aimed toward improving rehab therapists’ marketing and sales savvy—like Ascend

4. Time Management Skills 

Effective time management is key to a successful PT career. Not only do you have to juggle treatment time with documentation and other administrative to-dos, but you also have to stay current on your CEUs, keep up with the latest medical advancements (which your CEUs may not totally cover), and contribute to your clinic’s presence in the community (whether that’s by taking on referral marketing duties or attending local events). And on top of all that, most clinics require PTs to hit certain levels of productivity. It’s sink or swim in the PT world of time management, and successful PTs must swim fast. 

How to Manage Your Time

I’ll be the first to admit that improving personal time management skills is a lot easier said than done. It’s one thing to verbally commit to a project or task—but actually completing that task is another thing entirely. Think of it this way: You may think you can squeeze another patient visit into your day, but when it comes down to it, is it really feasible for you to dedicate 60 minutes to treating and documenting another patient? Will you be sacrificing your sanity in order to do so? 

Successful time management hinges on understanding your workload and knowing your personal limits. Now, it’s important to note that there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for time management. You, like everyone else, must find the approach that works best for you. That said, this Lifehack article recommends implementing these general strategies:

  • Delegate tasks that are better-suited for others. 
  • Organize your task load. 
  • Learn how to prioritize your work. 
  • Give yourself a hard deadline. 
  • Conquer procrastination. 
  • Address your stress. 
  • Take breaks. 
  • Know when to say “no.”

5. Leadership Know-How

You don’t have to be stationed in a leadership position—or want to grow into one—to develop (and use) leadership skills. Leadership skills (like the other skills I’ve touched on so far) are widely transferable to an array of different roles. Think of it this way. Strong leaders can: 

  • motivate without micromanaging, 
  • forge strong, positive interpersonal connections, 
  • smooth out wrinkles in relationships and work processes, and 
  • delegate and coordinate fairly and effectively.

You don’t have to lead a huge team to put these skills to good use. You can use your motivation skills to help encourage a patient or uplift a coworker who’s rocketing toward burnout; or, you can use your peacemaking ability to keep communication between the back office and your fellow therapists smoother than a fresh jar of peanut butter. 

How to Take the Lead

The good news is that you don’t have to be in a management position to sharpen your leadership skills. You can volunteer to take the helm on small tasks or projects that crop up in your clinic—whether that’s organizing a clinic or community event or spearheading your practice’s latest culture initiative.

A great way to improve your leadership skills is to find a mentor (maybe a leader you’ve worked with and admire) who can help guide and direct your growth. There are also many different training courses, programs, and conferences that can help you improve as a leader. 

How can PTs apply these nonclinical physical therapy skills outside of traditional clinic work?

What’s awesome about nonclinical skills is that they apply across many different professions—and they’re especially useful if you decide to step out of patient care altogether. “Anytime you can show that you've had a hand in budgeting, you'll be ahead of the curve for management or director of rehabilitation roles,” Castin says. “Marketing skills will come in handy for roles like rehab liaison or clinical liaison.” She also notes that presentation skills are useful for clinical trainer or clinical training manager positions, and participating in quality control initiatives comes in particularly handy when applying for utilization review jobs. 

People often refer to these types of nonclinical skills as “soft skills.” But, that’s a bit of a misnomer, because it implies that these skills are “nice-to-haves.” In reality, these nonclinical skills are integral for growing your career as a PT and running a successful clinic. What nonclinical skills are mission-critical in your practice? Feel free to drop a line below and share your experiences with us!


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