As a healthcare provider, you surely want your patients to succeed. But, there’s only so much you can do before it really is up to the patient to show up, follow through, and commit to the lifestyle changes necessary between sessions to reach his or her goals. That said, there are ways to maximize your efforts—to provide your patients with a solid foundation from which to soar. With that in mind, here are five strategies for motivating patients in physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech-language pathology plans of care:

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1. Lay solid groundwork.

All good coach-coachee relationships start with a leveling of expectations—that is, a discussion about what your patients can expect from you and what you can expect from them. This conversation should include everything from the way your practice handles cancellations and tardiness to the channels available for your patients to reach you between sessions if they have questions and feedback. You’ll also want to be sure to find out each patient’s preferred method (and frequency) of communication—in case you’d like to share helpful content between sessions. (Patient relationship management software can actually automate the entire content delivery process, so patients receive the right information at the right time—every time.) You might also want to discuss how your patients would like to be communicated with throughout their course of care (e.g., do they respond best to positive cheerleading or would they prefer more of a drill-coach style?). Just remember: only offer what you’re able to provide.

Whatever you each commit to, be sure to put it in writing—preferably in your EMR or PRM system—so you can refer to it before each patient session. This is an area where technology can be super helpful to remind you of your patients’ preferences and important life details.

2. Emphasize the importance of patient participation.

The very first session is also the time to discuss the importance of patient participation throughout the care journey. While many of you might wish that you could do a patient’s home exercise program for him or her, you can’t—and you probably won’t be able to help that patient make the best decisions for his or her recovery in real time, either. So, now’s the time to provide patients with everything they need to know about the benefits of being fully engaged in their care, so they can decide for themselves to, say, perform their morning exercise routine—or to sit out of that pick-up football game for the time being in order to prevent further injury. We talked about this in terms of employee motivation here, but it works for patients as well: “create a culture that supports autonomy, mastery, and purpose.” The last thing you want is to enable over-reliance or co-dependence in your patients; instead, set them up for success by focusing on how they can drive their journey to health (hello, autonomy) by being engaged every step of the way (which will inevitably lead to mastery). As for purpose—that shows up in the next section.

3. Set good goals—specifically, ones that are meaningful to patients.

Every person who shows up to your practice is unique—even those patients who present with similar symptoms and conditions. After all, every patient has a different lifestyle, different hopes and dreams, and different motivations for seeking care. In order to set your patients up for success, you’ll want to work collaboratively to set goals that are meaningful to each individual—ones that tap into that person’s motivation for getting and staying healthy as well as generate intrinsic drive (hello, purpose). As I wrote here, “to a patient, a goal of painlessly walking 50 yards to the mailbox with normal gait—without the use of an assistive device—is a whole lot more meaningful than a goal of merely improving his or her ROM.” Be sure the goals that you and your patients set together are attainable—and perhaps just a little stretchy if patients are really wanting to push themselves. You can always set a new goal once the first one is met, but setting patients up for failure with a too-lofty goal at the start is a surefire way to stall momentum—one that could potentially lead to patient dropout—especially given that rehab therapy is typically a long-term process.

If you’ve ever experienced patient dropout—and, let’s be real, who hasn’t?—then you need this complete guide to eliminating the dropout problem in your practice once and for all. The best part? It’s totally free.

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4. Use those goals to drive engagement.

Once you’ve landed on an agreed-upon, meaningful goal or two, be sure to connect the services you provide in-clinic—as well as the home exercises you prescribe—to that goal throughout the course of care. That way, you can keep engagement up. According to Bijal Shah—the author of this NGPT article—in most cases, you can leave the clinical anatomy and physiology speak out of the conversation, unless a patient is particularly interested in that level of detail. Instead, he says, “simply providing general information like telling patients that they use their quads/thighs and glutes/butt for sit to stand is helpful! Your patients are more likely to engage in wall sits and mini squats when they know the exercises are directly linked to their goals.” Then, be sure to celebrate the milestones your patients hit on their way to their end-goals using outcomes data that objectively shows progress. Small wins add up to huge ones, and marking progress with data can improve patient buy-in. This is especially important in situations where you know there is going to be a slow start before the patient gains much traction.

5. Keep spirits up.

We all know that attitude and perspective play an important role in patient outcomes, so make it a point to keep your patients’ spirits up—as well as your own. Provider burnout is a real issue, and while we may not be able to overhaul the entire healthcare system fast enough to eradicate the problem in its entirety, there are things you can do to manage your own wellbeing so you can continue to show up for your patients. That starts with taking care of your basic human needs on a daily basis (e.g., staying hydrated, giving yourself permission to use the restroom as needed, packing a nourishing lunch, and scheduling adequate time off). You may also want to seek out emotional support in the form of friends, family members, or a therapist who can help you explore negative feelings without looping. And be sure to communicate to your business partners or boss when the pace of work becomes too much. You can’t pour from an empty cup, which means you won’t be able to help your patients without first helping yourself.

When it comes to meeting your patients’ needs, be sure to collect—and act on—feedback consistently, so you can address small concerns before they become big ones. We prefer the simple and super-effective Net Promoter Score (NPS) system. (Hint: If you’re a manager, administrator, or owner, this type of feedback process can be incredibly beneficial for employees, too).


There you have it: five ways to coach your patients to achieve their therapy goals. Have your own methods for encouraging positive outcomes? Share them in the comment section below. We’d love to hear them.

Want more strategies for motivating patients without the carrots and sticks? Check out this post.

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