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What Soft Skills Do Physiotherapists Need?

When we think of a Physiotherapist going about their day at work, we usually think of the hard skills they've learned at university: prescribing a walking aid, checking upper limb myotomes, and chest auscultation. However, these scientific and evidence-based techniques are only part of the full picture to be an excellent Physiotherapist. Soft skills are just as important to deliver high-quality care to patients.

What are soft skills? Soft skills are general characteristics that help Physiotherapists excel in the clinical setting they work in, regardless of their level of experience or area of specialty. Another way to understand soft skills is to think of them as interpersonal skills which refers to reading the verbal and non-verbal signals that other people send and interpreting them accurately to form appropriate responses.

In this article, we will look at several key soft skills that all Physiotherapists should develop and maintain to improve interactions with patients, work more effectively with colleagues and create new best practices.

Good soft skills improve patient satisfaction

Communicating effectively may be the most important soft skill in a Physiotherapist's toolbox. An accurate diagnosis and treatment plan can only be made when there is clear and honest communication between the physiotherapist and the patient. A review of reports from The Joint Commission showed that communication failures were the cause of 70% of adverse events in healthcare settings. Providers can help patients feel heard, ease their fears, and encourage them to disclose relevant information. For example, a patient who feels embarrassed about a recent fall will likely feel more safe mentioning this to a Physiotherapist who they know will treat them with compassion and in a professional manner.

Additionally, every patient has a right to understand the treatment they will receive. So, a Physiotherapist can demonstrate their soft skills via excellent communication using the following strategies:

  1. Sit down at the same level as the patient: Evidence shows that when a patient and the Physiotherapist are seated during a consultation, the two parties can build trust more easily. When a Physiotherapist sits down to talk with a patient, the patient perceives the consultation to be less rushed and more intimate. This in turn can reduce any anxiety the patient may have about conveying their ideas, concerns or expectations to the Physiotherapist.

  2. Use open-ended questions: Patients may sometimes feel uncomfortable expressing their concerns, even after a few minutes of empathetic interaction with a Physiotherapist. Physiotherapists should regularly confirm whether patients have more to say. Examples of how Physiotherapists could phrase open-ended questions include: “Is there something else you’d like to mention today?”, "How do you feel about this issue?", "How have you been handling this so far?". Asking questions like these can create a safe space for patients to think and express concerns they might not have declared otherwise.

  3. Use simple language: Physiotherapists should avoid scientific jargon, where possible, and instead use simple language to communicate with patients. Whenever scientific jargon is appropriate, Physiotherapists should define it clearly (e.g., “This ankle orthotic is a device used to keep a joint in a secure position”). Speaking with simple language lets patients know that the Physiotherapist genuinely cares about having a two-way conversation with them instead of just treating the conversation as a tick-box exercise.

Soft skills promote excellent teamwork

Physiotherapists must be self-aware and inclusive to interact with colleagues from all backgrounds. Diversity encompasses ethnicity and race, as well as gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and religion. Given the growing diversity of the healthcare workforce, there is a greater need to be aware of different cultural dynamics among colleagues. Diversity may potentially offer more creativity, innovation and enhanced problem-solving within healthcare teams by combining the knowledge, experience, and skills of people with different backgrounds. However, teams that consist of individuals with different cultural backgrounds may have more disagreements and be less cooperative due to differences in perspectives on various topics.

Physiotherapists can enhance their soft skills by becoming more culturally aware through the use of 1) The AcePhysio behavioural science question bank which covers clinical vignettes and theory on healthcare behavioural science as well as 2) seeking practical experiences of engagement with other cultures. Physiotherapists can increase their exposure to other cultures by travelling, working or studying overseas, or seeking out culturally diverse social experiences in their local region.

Soft skills drive innovation

Healthcare is advancing at a rapid rate, and the rate of change requires both Physiotherapists and other healthcare professionals to adapt to the changing environment. Soft skills such as adaptability, creativity, decision-making and leadership are essential for a Physiotherapist working within a healthcare setting to ensure their organisation is able to implement change safely and effectively. Possessing the previously mentioned soft skills is crucial when changing the way things are done for the better as a Physiotherapist needs to be able to recognise the issues 'on the shop floor', consider why this is happening and the risk-benefit of correcting this issue as well as being able to politely communicate this issue and a solution to other members of the healthcare organisation.

Final words

Bear in mind that mastering soft skills is a continuous process that continues throughout a Physiotherapist's career. Proper use of soft skills by Physiotherapists not only ensures that patients received high-quality care but healthcare organisations also become more efficient in delivering care. As you continue to acquire more hard skills over the course of your career, it is easy to forget some of the niche soft skills that can make a considerable difference to outcomes with every patient. To overcome this, bookmark and refer to this article for a quick reminder as part of your continuing professional development.

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