Most Physical Therapists enter the profession with one goal in mind: to help people move and feel better. This goal remains true, whether a Physical Therapist’s passion lies in helping the elderly in assisted living, acutely in the hospital, or in a more active outpatient clinic.
Yet, no one warns about the negative effects of working in such a rewarding, yet demanding field. From finding time to document and seeing multiple patients at once to the high costs associated with becoming a Physical Therapist and the emotional stress, unfortunately this profession can end up leaving someone burnt out with a lack of passion for the job.
Burnout can be defined as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress, resulting in:
- Feeling of exhaustion;
- Negative feelings related to one’s job; and
- Reduced professional efficacy.
The Physical Therapy profession experiences a 53% burn-out rate that is most prevalent between 5 and 15 years of working.¹ ²
This burnout can be due to several factors:
- High productivity demands;
- Documentation demands;
- Emotional stress; and
- Cost of tuition and high student loan interest rates and total debt.
In most Physical Therapy clinics, there are expectations for therapists to be working at 90% productivity. This high level of productivity, seeing multiple patients at once, and poor reimbursement rates really go hand in hand.
Therapists are expected to have a high rate of productivity in order to be able to make a profit. Since reimbursement rates are so low, productivity needs to be high and the number of patients seen at once needs to increase.
In addition to the 90% productivity rate, most clinics also require therapists to see at least 2 patients in an hour. However, it is not uncommon to have 4 patients on the schedule within a one-hour block.
But, if reimbursement rates would improve, this high patient demand could decrease.
Another benefit of improved reimbursement rates would be the company’s ability to offer a higher salary, helping to close the gap between costs of tuition and Physical Therapy salary.
In fact, the median salary for a Physical Therapist is $86,850 and the average total debt of Physical Therapists is about $96,000.³ However, nearly 20% of Physical Therapists have over $150,000 in student loan debt.
Take away the stress of student loans and you will, without a doubt, have more happy and passionate Physical Therapists that can solely focus on their patient care instead of their looming debt.
In order to solve half of the burnout equation, we need to improve reimbursement rates.
Documentation is another large contributor to burnout. In fact, only 35% of therapists complete their documentation at work.⁴ The other 65% have to work on paperwork at home after-hours. This is because of the high number of patients needing to be seen and the inability to take regularly scheduled breaks. Honestly, the only break you will see as a Physical Therapist is your 30-minute (if you are lucky a 60 minute) lunch break or when a patient cancels last minute.
Not only are Physical Therapists working hard in the office, but they also have to go home and continue to work and think about their patients.
The stress related to taking work home, taking away from personal and family time, combined with the emotional stress of caring for so many people is truly challenging.
Again, the main goal of a Physical Therapist is to help people. Sometimes, patients just don’t want to put the work in to care for themselves and they expect their Physical Therapist to be a magic cure. But Physical Therapy is supposed to be a two way street. A therapist guides, but the patient needs to put in the work.
Unfortunately, there are times when Physical Therapy does not actually help a patient, but more often, the reason why a patient may not improve is because they are not doing their homework. This leads to the therapist feeling like it is their fault, feeling like a failure, and taking the situation personally.
If you stop and think about how many times you may see your doctor or dentist per year, the answer is relatively low, perhaps 2 times a year if you are healthy. But the length of a plan of care between a Physical Therapist and a patient is typically much longer than that. The average length is 10 visits, but many see their therapist for months on end. This is a long time to get to know someone. The therapist can’t help but to feel intricately woven into a patient’s life.
When a patient’s outcomes are not favorable, it affects the therapist as well.
Physical Therapists would move mountains for their patients. So why aren’t mountains moved for us?
1) Schuster, Neil D., David L. Nelson, and Carolyn Quisling. “Burnout among physical therapists.” Physical Therapy 64, no. 3 (1984): 299-303. Retrieved from https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.855.8274&rep=rep1&type=pdf
2) Pustułka-Piwnik, Urszula & Ryn, Zdzisław & Krzywoszanski, Lukasz & Stożek, Joanna. (2014). Burnout syndrome in physical therapists – Demographic and organizational factors. Medycyna pracy. 65. 453-62. 10.13075/mp.5893.00038.
3) Hornsby, Travis (2019) Expensive Physical Therapy Student Loans: PTs are Getting Smacked! Retrieved from https://www.studentloanplanner.com/expensive-physical-therapy-student-loans/#:~:text=According%20to%20a%20survey%20conducted,practice%20has%20been%20about%20%24154%2C000.
4) Occupational Burnout in Physical Therapy: Clinical Implications and Strategies for Reduction. Retrieved from https://www.fsbpt.org/Portals/0/documents/free-resources/Spring2018ForumOccupationalBurnoutinPhysicalTherapy.pdf
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