Dress the Part

Physical therapy is evolving into an autonomous doctoring profession -- your attire should reflect that.

We as a profession are pushing to become autonomous practitioners and the first medical professional that people think about when they start to experience pain. We have moved from a certificate program working mostly under a physician to having doctorates and trying to work in conjunction with physicians to better serve our diverse patient population.

However, in the mainstream view of things, there are few people who consider physical therapy a leader in the health field capable of diagnosing and treating a wide variety of pathologies. Most people go directly to their physician; others go to the far-more-advertised chiropractors; and only a small group will come directly to us.

This is not an editorial on advertising and lobbying in Washington. This is about making an impression on the people we do see. The first impression is crucial in gaining the trust of people considering you as their medical professional of choice.

Most people have never been to a physical therapist and have no idea what to expect. I believe that the first encounter is our best chance to educate someone on how we can serve their health needs. The first day is an audition to prove ourselves as a consideration for a primary-care medical professional for pain and movement dysfunctions.

Here are some key pointers.

The Introduction

The way we introduce ourselves was always a controversial issue in the places at which I interned and worked. There is debate over whether to introduce ourselves as "doctor" or "your physical therapist." The people who tell me I must introduce myself as "doctor" say it's to let people know that you are a doctor and therefore have the knowledge and training to help them.

People supporting the "your physical therapist" introduction say that it avoids any confusion with being seen as a "physician" and lets people know exactly who you are.

I contend that we do both. I introduce myself in this way: "Hello, my name is Dr. Simonds. I will be your physical therapist." After the initial introduction I always ask my patients to refer to me as Sean and I will introduce myself as Sean after that.

Again, people's first impression of you is important. I want people to know that I have earned my doctorate through an intense didactic education spanning 7 years.

On the other hand, I have no intention of leading people to believe I am a physician. It is important to educate your patients on the field of physical therapy with the first words you say. In addition, knowing that you're a licensed doctor gives people confidence in your abilities and helps with compliance.

How to Dress

The way one dresses is reflective of the nature of his position. If you wish to be taken seriously as a professional, dress professionally. People providing medical care are, necessarily so, viewed as some of the most professional people in the working world. This view needs to be reflected in the dress of anybody wishing to work in this capacity.

Furthermore, a fair amount of authority is gained from what somebody wears. Those providing medical care to others must establish at the very least a minimal command-follower structure in the relationship with the patient, so the patient knows to follow the physician's program closely or exactly.

One way to establish this is to dress like a professional to exhibit both your professional attitude and your expertise in the area. A physical therapist wishing to introduce themselves as a doctor must dress as a doctor.

Clinical Knowledge

Introducing yourself as "doctor" is one thing. Proving it is an entirely different story. We have dressed appropriately and have made people aware of our credentials. Now it's time to show what we've been practicing.

Most people new to physical therapy assume it will be something like a physician's office, where they only get a couple moments with the physician (due mainly to insurance constraints and reimbursement). Here is the chance to prove we are the experts of our fields.

Every place I have worked, I've been offered 45- to 60-minute evaluation time slots. This is the time during which we show our patients that we possess the clinical knowledge to help them improve their current condition. Take the extra time to explain the condition and plan for rehabilitation in detail to your patients.

Most will appreciate the effort and the time you take to explain exactly what's going on in their body, and how you plan to fix it. Don't skip over the explanation just because you feel it's simple or unnecessary for the patient to know.

Caring Attitude

You're professionally dressed and have exhibited a wealth of knowledge in your field. Now is your chance to show your emotion and dedication to the cause.

Showing that you care, actively listening to what your patient is saying, and interacting with them are crucial in the patient-therapist relationship. For our patients to trust us and comply with our requests and suggestions, they must know we care about their well-being.

Talk about their condition with them, share similar experiences, and tell them your plan to help. Show that you're invested in making them better. If you act disinterested and bored, all of your prep work is for naught. It won't matter how big you write "Doctor" before your name.

Take an interest in their condition and how it affects their daily lives. Show an interest in who they really are. I didn't really believe in this when I was in school. After all, I'm here to fix a problem, not listen to people's problems, right? I can tell you from experience that compliance and results go up when you display a caring attitude -- not to mention my own self-fulfillment and the knowledge that I'm truly helping people, rather than just "fixing a problem."

Invest yourself in how you represent your profession and how you treat your patients.

Sean Simonds is a physical therapist at Athlon Physical Therapy, Oro Valley, AZ.


And did I say how much I appreciate this article?! Thanks, Sean!

Jane  Harmon October 21, 2012

I generally agree with Dr. Simonds, or Sean, as he prefers to be called. However, no other doctoral-degreed professional I know of asks the people s/he serves to call him/herself by a first name or nickname. That would include physicians, dentists, podiatrists, chiropractors (or professors, until recent decades). Even if a PT, OT or SLP does not have a doctorate, using a first name gains nothing, with one exception. That is simplicity. If the patient/client requires the simplicity of a first name or a simple last name, we should accommodate the need. If your last name is hyphenated, offer the simplest last name to toddlers, brain-injured or aphasic or speech-impaired people.

My second comment is to Dr. Simonds' use of the term "doctoring profession," and the sentence, " A physical therapist wishing to introduce themselves as a doctor must dress as a doctor." as examples. No matter the level of education of PTs, OTs or SLPs, we are all professionals, and should speak, act and appear as such. But none of us are "doctors!" That term is reserved for physicians, MD or DO and for "foot doctor" or "eye doctor." Dentists and dental specialists are "dentists." People with doctorates in schools are "Principal," teachers, "Professor," or instructors. We are not doctors; we are therapists. Ask anyone on the street or in a school.

One more note: Dr. Simmonds stated, "Those providing medical care to others must establish at the very least a minimal command-follower structure in the relationship with the patient, so the patient knows to follow the physician's program closely or exactly." That reminded me of a fundamental difference between PT and OT. The same difference occurs between nurses and physicians. Physicians and PTs work from, think from a strict medical model, wherein a "patient" is someone the doc or PT does something to. Nurses and OTs come from a more client-based model, whether their terminology reflects that or not. The difference is a "client" is someone the therapist hopes will participate in the process, not just take orders. Dr. Simonds speaks clearly of this in his last paragraph. The moral: Let the physicians prescribe drugs or operate on Mr. Smith. Let Mr. Smith's nurses and therapists work WITH him in his progress.

Jane  Harmon ,  OTROctober 21, 2012


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