For most patients, physical therapy takes a long time—much longer than many other types of care. Improvements happen slowly, and progress isn’t always immediately noticeable. So, how do you keep patients engaged enough to continue working hard—inside and outside of the clinic—when they start to question the effectiveness of your treatment? Well, you ditch the carrots and sticks in favor of motivation techniques that really work. Here are four strategies you can implement today to better motivate your physical therapy patients:

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1. Set clear expectations from the beginning.

As WebPT’s Kylie McKee explains here, it’s totally normal to feel discouraged “if you set your goals higher than what you can realistically achieve,” which is why every rehab therapist should make it a point to work with patients during the initial encounter to not only set realistic, measurable goals, but also “educate those patients on the kind of results they can expect.” McKee recommends explaining “that restoring function takes time and effort”—from both the PT and the patient. Plus, while “therapy is effective—and the results tend to last longer than those derived from more instantaneous treatments (e.g., surgery or injections),” it’s important for the patient to understand that “it’s not an overnight process.” This type of level-setting from the beginning can do wonders for keeping patients engaged in their care—and committed to completing their home exercise programs—even during periods when progress isn’t as great (or as obvious) as they might have hoped.

2. Focus on the positive.

There’s a reason why positive reinforcement is an important motivational tool: because it works. While we wouldn’t recommend laying it on thick (your patients will be able to spot insincerity a mile away), it’s important to point out the positive gains that your patients are making—and to celebrate data-backed milestones—even if they’re small. To make the most impact, be sure you’ve got data points to, well, point to, including patient-reported outcome measurement tools and the results of objective tests. If you’re using an interactive, multimedia HEP that provides a secure messaging platform, you can celebrate home exercise progress in near real-time. Plus, patients will be able to track their own progress between sessions, which can create momentum to help them reach the next goal—and then the next.

3. Stay connected between appointments.

Speaking of secure messaging, it’s important to maintain an open line of communication so patients can ask questions—and voice frustrations—between sessions. Simply allowing your patients to express their concerns about a lack of progress—and being empathetic to them—can go along way in keeping those patients engaged for the long haul. You can also use these opportunities to help patients refocus on the positive by reminding them of past successes. While you could certainly provide your work email address or have a dedicated voicemail box for situations like these, offering patients a secure messaging platform that they can access via an app from anywhere that’s convenient for them is a huge value-add. Plus, you or your staff members will be able to respond in near real-time, which can help patients feel connected to their provider between visits. (If you’d rather not respond to patient inquiries as they come in, you could always set up dedicated chat “office-hours” during which you make yourself available to respond to patients.)

To really connect with patients between appointments, you may also want to implement PRM software (such as WebPT Reach) to send valuable and uber-relevant content to patients at specific intervals between sessions.  

4. Provide exceptional, valuable care—and a great patient experience.

While this may seem like it goes without saying, the very best thing you can do to motivate your patients is provide them with the very best care—and patient experience. And that applies during patient appointments as well as between them. To ensure you’re doing just that, you’ll want to choose super-relevant CEUs, implement an outcomes tracking protocol (as mentioned above), and collect patient feedback to monitor your patients’ perception of their experience with your practice. While traditional satisfaction surveys have their drawbacks, loyalty metrics—such as Net Promoter Score® (NPS®)—can be incredibly valuable. (Hint: Look for a PRM software that has patient feedback collection built right in.)


While some clinics may choose to offer small rewards to celebrate patient progress milestones, extrinsic motivation only goes so far. Instead—or at least additionally—find ways to tap into patients’ intrinsic motivation by understanding their objectives and helping them connect the treatment you’re providing to those objectives. How do you keep your patients motivated throughout their course of care? Tell us what works for you in the comment section below.

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