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How to Choose a Physical Therapist

physical therapy session

Not All Rehabilitation Facilities are Created Equal

Recovery after an injury or surgery is hard work, and rehabilitation is often a critical factor. Many people don’t realize the importance of choosing the right therapist and facility for their needs. Although most physical therapists are well-trained and committed to providing good treatment, not all facilities offer the same type or level of care. For example, practices may have areas of special expertise, and some physical therapists have additional credentials. So it’s important for people to do their homework. Here are a few things to look for as you choose a PT practice:

First things first: do you need a physician referral?
It depends-every state in the United States currently allows some level of direct access and in many cases patients can begin physical therapy without a referral. Direct access is meant to increase accessibility to a qualified physical therapist so that individuals can be evaluated quickly and determine next steps for care. Learn more about direct access from the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).

When can they see you?
Consider how quickly you can get an appointment. If you need to wait more than a week or two, you may be better off finding a facility where you can start sooner, especially if you’ve had recent surgery. It’s also a good idea to ask about the cancellation policy. Some facilities charge a fee for cancelling an appointment.

Community and word-of-mouth resources
Find out what resources are available in your area to help you with your search. The Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) Rehabilitation Network, which marked its 25th anniversary this year, assists those who are looking for a facility in their community that meet the highest standards of care. You may also want to ask your doctor or a friend for recommendations.

Credentials and specializations
Choose the right practice for your needs. Some practices may focus more on sports medicine, while others may specialize in rehabilitation for neck and back problems or therapy after joint replacement.  The American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) offers an advanced degree of certification in a number of clinical specialty areas, including Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Orthopaedic Physical Therapy (OCS), Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Pediatric Physical Therapy (PCS), and Board-Certified Clinical Specialist in Sports Physical Therapy (SCS). Call the facility and ask questions to make sure there are physical therapists with expertise in treating your particular problem. Ask who will be treating you and how much experience the therapist has.

Since physical therapy is usually a weekly commitment and may last for an extended period of time, convenience is an important consideration. The facility’s location shouldn’t take you too far out of your usual routine, or it will be difficult to keep regular appointments. The HSS Rehabilitation Network map offers an easy way to search for and find more information about member PT practices in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, suburban Philadelphia, and Florida.

Visit the facility
Try to set up a time to take a tour of the facility before beginning therapy. A reputable practice should have no problem arranging a quick visit. Make note of:

  • The attentiveness of the therapists: are they working with multiple patients at one time?
  • The cleanliness and upkeep of the facility: is equipment wiped down between patients?
  • The atmosphere: are therapists and therapy assistants actively working with patients, or are people standing around waiting to be treated?
  • Name badges: are people working there wearing a name badge with their job title? They are required to do so in many states, including New York.

After you’ve found a PT practice
Once you decide where to go, you should be evaluated and treated by a licensed physical therapist. Physical therapy assistants are also trained, licensed professionals, and your therapist may work with an assistant to provide your care.

You should not be receiving treatment from an unlicensed physical therapy aide or technician. Aides help physical therapists with tasks such as basic administrative duties, getting treatment areas ready and escorting patients within the clinic, but they are not legally permitted to provide treatment or instruct patients in exercises. If you’re not sure of the credentials of the person treating you, you have the right to ask.

If you ever feel uncomfortable or if an exercise or treatment is painful, speak up. If you feel the physical therapist is not spending enough time with you or appears distracted, you may want to find someone who offers more personalized care and attention.

You should also receive instruction on exercises to do at home. The therapist may provide handouts, a link to a video demonstrating the correct movements, or another form of instruction to ensure you are doing the exercise correctly.

If you have questions or would like more information about finding the right physical therapist for you, please contact the HSS Rehabilitation Network at 212.606.1317.

Updated September 12, 2019

JeMe Cioppa-Mosca is the Senior Vice President of Rehabilitation at Hospital for Special Surgery.

Robin Benick is the Director of the Hospital for Special Surgery Rehabilitation Network.

The information provided in this blog by HSS and our affiliated physicians is for general informational and educational purposes, and should not be considered medical advice for any individual problem you may have. This information is not a substitute for the professional judgment of a qualified health care provider who is familiar with the unique facts about your condition and medical history. You should always consult your health care provider prior to starting any new treatment, or terminating or changing any ongoing treatment. Every post on this blog is the opinion of the author and may not reflect the official position of HSS. Please contact us if we can be helpful in answering any questions or to arrange for a visit or consult.