3 Ways to Avoid Early Burnout as a Physical Therapist | Med Travelers

Tim Fraticelli is a Physical Therapist, Certified Financial Planner™, and founder of PTProgress.com. He loves to teach PTs and OTs ways to save time and money in and out of the clinic, especially when it comes to documentation or continuing education. Follow him on YouTube for weekly videos on ways to improve your physical and financial health.

As Physical Therapists, our workday is centered around giving our time, energy, attention, and encouragement to our patients nearly every hour of the day. This can be mentally, physically, and emotionally draining.

Sometimes our efforts go unnoticed or patient outcomes aren’t as good as we expected. But just like other medical colleagues who experience similar challenges, it’s important to realize that we will not be able to help every single person who walks through our clinic door. We should absolutely try to do our best, but it’s important to realize that we can be on the path to burnout if we haven’t set the right expectations with ourselves, our employers, and even our patients.

Burnout can happen in any career, but healthcare burnout affects over ½ of physicians and ⅓ of other professionals like nurses, and dare I add Physical Therapists. Signs of burnout can include mental exhaustion, cynicism, frustration with your employer, and feeling helpless or trapped.

Unfortunately, the conversation of burnout is becoming even more common among new PTs entering the workforce. I hope these tips can help new grads avoid burnout in physical therapy so they can enjoy a rewarding career in PT.

1. Set Boundaries & Clear Expectations

There’s a big difference between a clinic that expects you to see 40 visits a week and a clinic that expects 80 patient visits a week.  I’m all about maximizing productivity and schedules, but if your clinic is crossing the line with overlapping appointments and unethical (or illegal) scheduling practices, you’re on a path to experience burnout quickly.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be flexible and help our colleagues or patients by rescheduling our lunch breaks or staying later than normal when they need help.

But if the clinic is trying to meet a weekly visit goal and starts to double or triple book patients, their priorities are wrong.

It’s time to re-establish some boundaries and to clarify your expectations for the clinic. If this is happening in your clinic, ask for a meeting with your supervisor to review the job description and productivity expectations. 

2. Stay Curious and Keep Things Interesting

One of the ways I’ve avoided burnout in my career is by pursuing new challenges and learning new things. I’ve always been interested in outpatient orthopedics, but I wanted to mix my clinical knowledge with my interest in treating fitness athletes. So, I found a continuing education course that focused on the management of the fitness athlete and how to integrate the latest research within my practice. 

Whether you’re interested in pediatrics, neurology, or sports rehab, there are always new courses available that can keep you up to date with the latest research.  I use courses through MedBridge to stay up to date with continuing education that’s interesting to me. Whether you use an online resource or an in-person resource, the point is to continue your education in a way that’s challenging and interesting to you.

Avoid getting in a rut and allowing the ‘same old practices’ keep you from learning new ways to deliver care.

3. Simplify Documentation with Automation

It still surprises me when I find physical therapists typing the same phrases over and over as they write their notes.

There’s no doubt that physical therapy documentation continues to be one of the most frustrating aspects of our work as PTs, but simple automations can really help reduce this major contributor to burnout.

I learned early on that certain exercise progressions and routines could be outlined and modified without typing out each word with every treatment.

The same is true with certain aspects of physical therapy evaluations, progress notes, and daily notes.  Yes, therapy documentation should be unique to the patient, but for the routine areas of our documentation, avoid spending time typing the same lines over and over.

Quick Solution: Your computer or tablet probably has a feature called “hotkeys” or an ability to replace a string of text with a long line of prefilled text.  I started shaving off 30 to 60 seconds with each treatment note by simply using this feature to paste in a sort of template to my notes. Not only did it help me to avoid missing certain descriptors, but it saved me time so that I could be even more present with my patients during their treatment sessions.

I encourage PT students and new grads to take their time in writing thorough notes, but also to save those well-written snippets to reference later. By removing the monotony and simplifying the process of note writing, I feel less stressed with my documentation and it’s one less contributor to burnout that I need to fix.

Final Thoughts on Burnout

If you’re feeling burnt out as a Physical Therapist, I’d encourage you to consider the tips to reestablish boundaries at work, find ways to learn new skills, and automate mundane tasks as much as possible. There’s not a ‘one size fits all approach to avoiding burnout, but this can be a great place to start if you’re feeling stressed about your current situation at work.

I hope these examples have given you some ideas on how you can avoid burnout in your career so that you can continue to impact others without sacrificing your mental and physical health.

Are you a new grad PT looking to start your travel therapy adventure? Learn more about the Med Travelers PT/OT New Grad Program. 

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