Physical Therapy

How to Avoid Burning Out Your Physical Therapists

Exhausted physical therapist taking a break and stretching to prevent burnout.
Physical therapist burnout poses a major problem to clinics, patients, and PTs themselves. Learn what causes PT burnout, along with concrete ways to fight it.

Managing a physiotherapy clinic can feel like walking a tightrope. On the one hand, it’s centered around health, wellness, and making patients feel better. On the other hand, the ones dealing with those patients are often the first ones to push themselves too far and suffer from physical therapist burnout.

It’s become a real problem in recent years, especially as healthcare providers have attempted to adapt to the pandemic. Physical therapists are dealing with the same pandemic-era stressors as everyone else while also struggling to provide hands-on care without compromising their safety.

The result shouldn’t be surprising: physical therapists are overworked, tired, and burned out. And if that burnout causes a PT to quit, you’ve lost a talented employee. Then you need to spend time, energy, and resources to replace them.

In this article, you’ll learn what physical therapist burnout is actually costing you, the most common causes for burnout, and how to prevent this problem from impacting your clinic.

What is physical therapist (PT) burnout costing you?

Physical therapist burnout doesn’t just harm the physical therapist. It carries a ripple effect that reaches both the clinic and the patients. Let’s start with how physical therapist burnout hits your clinic financially. Researchers found that physical therapist burnout results in $4.6 billion in costs annually due to turnover or reduced working hours.

But let’s be honest: you’re not managing some run-of-the-mill business; you’re literally in the business of helping people. And this is really where the effects of PT burnout hit hardest. When you’re dealing with or replacing physical therapists who are overworked, stressed, and experiencing emotional exhaustion, it’s the patient care that ends up suffering. And as you well know, retention rates for PT patients are already very underwhelming:

  • 14% of PT patients don’t show up for their follow-up visit
  • 20–30% stop after their second appointment
  • Up to 70% of patients won’t complete their PT recovery at all

Now you’re facing two problems that have a cumulatively negative effect on your clinic’s operation. First, you have the financial burden of replacing PTs who are burnt out. Second, you risk decreasing the already low patient retention rates through worsening patient care.

In the end, these factors can harm your clinic’s reputation among both patients and employees. This means it’s not only harder to attract new patients, but it’s harder to attract top talent to a clinic that is known for a poor work environment.

Causes of burnout among physical therapists

There are many factors that contribute to the feeling of burnout among PTs. In our work with PT practices, we’ve found that these are the three most common (and stressful) reasons your physical therapists have had enough.

Burdened by school debt

School debt might not be a unique problem for physical therapists, but it’s a huge problem nonetheless. The average student debt for a physical therapy student is $116,000, and $200,000 or more is not uncommon.

In 2020, the median salary for PTs was $91,000. Presuming the average $116,000 student loan is on a 10-year term, 20% of the PT’s monthly net salary goes back to paying that debt for a decade. Suddenly the promise of $91,000/year doesn’t stretch as far as it sounded, and physical therapists can feel trapped by their financial obligations. This leads to the second cause of PT burnout.

Rigorous working hours

In a perfect world, PTs would have a relatively normal workday. At a quality facility, that would mean taking a regular 8:00–5:00 position (with an hour lunch break), and they’d see 8–12 patients per day. But, in practice, clinics simply get too busy to accommodate such a relaxed schedule. If you’ve been in the trenches before, too, you might have even been through a common experience shared by many PTs: working far in excess of 40 hours per week, possibly split between multiple locations.

The problem becomes even more complex when your clinic is working under expectations set by insurance providers. Some insurance companies push PTs to see at least three patients/hour (or 24 patients/day). This leaves PTs a total of 20 minutes per patient, assuming everyone shows up on time and everything runs smoothly (which it rarely does).

Rigid scheduling conflicts

Physical therapists aren’t just healthcare workers. They’re also parents, spouses, and people with other responsibilities within your community. But sometimes, it’s easy to forget that the heroes on the frontlines are just as vulnerable to mental health issues as the rest of us. This can pose a new source of stress as PTs struggle to schedule enough clients to reach clinic expectations while working around personal and patient scheduling issues.

It’s also easy to forget that a lot of patients have full-time jobs, too. While many employees have gone remote, that doesn’t necessarily translate to more flexible working hours, and people still have to complete tasks in that 9:00–5:00 window. As a result, many patients require their sessions to be between 6:00–8:00 am or 5:00–7:00 pm. This forces many PTs to work from 7:00 am – 7:00 pm for at least four shifts per week (remember, some PTs pick up extra shifts across multiple clinics on their “days off” to ease their financial burden).

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2 steps to fix physical therapist burnout

So far, we’ve given you the bad news: physical therapist burnout is a real problem that negatively impacts your clinic, your staff, and, most importantly, your patients. Now, let’s turn the tables and look at the good news. Here are two actionable steps you can take to address burnout and increase your patient retention rate.

1. Provide smarter tech for additional support

The healthcare space tends to have mixed reactions to new technology in the field. Some clinic operators see things like artificial intelligence as a potential tool for streamlining the patient recovery process. Often, though, tech companies can’t deliver on their big promises in the real world, and physical therapists are left with tools with little practical power. And at the other end of the spectrum, if a tool works too well, PTs worry they are being replaced.

Fortunately, there’s a middle ground with a tool like Exer.

Exer Health is an AI-driven solution designed to support patient recovery and drastically reduce the stress your PTs face on the frontlines. The simple mobile app records and measures the mobility and adherence of your patients from any device with a camera. That means patients can perform home exercise protocols (HEPs) with precise progress-tracking and helpful form correction - and Health delivers actionable insights to PTs without adding an extra workload to their schedule. And daily SMS prompts remind patients to perform HEPs while gathering Patient Reported Outcome data like ongoing pain levels which can help PTs monitor and adjust care plans as needed. s.

Okay, but how is this going to help with physical therapist burnout?

A tool like Exer isn’t designed to replace the physical therapist. Instead, it’s designed to make their professional day-to-day tasks infinitely easier so they can:

  • Run higher quality in-person sessions with less effort 
  • Achieve better recovery outcomes faster (and with less stress) 
  • Automate documentation with more reliable data

These factors give your PTs more freedom and control. For example, imagine a patient who tears a tendon in their rotator cuff and needs to complete a series of exercises each day. The patient would be able to perform these HEP sessions in front of Exer Health while the AI-driven software accurately tracks form and mobility to ensure they’re doing their exercises correctly. Patient adherence and the quality of their recovery improves, with a rich trove of data delivered to the physical therapist who can then run targeted, efficient in-person visits to get faster recovery outcomes. 

This helps your PTs provide better care for their patients, while drastically improving the quality and efficiency of their in-person sessions. By supporting your staff with the right tech, you’ll see less employee turnover.

2. Commit to ethical scheduling practices

Set fair expectations for your employees and keep track of how many patients they’re seeing every day. What constitutes “fair expectations” will vary from clinic to clinic. For example, one clinic, Team Rehabilitation, openly shares with prospective PTs how many patients they aim to see in a day through a forum related to their job postings:

“On the average, Team Rehab Physical Therapists see about 12 patients in an 8 hour day. That's the short answer. The long answer is it depends on the patient, the clinic, and the day.”

The bottom line is that only you can judge what an ethical scheduling practice looks like for your PTs. And a great place to start is from your staff’s direct feedback regarding their workload. That said, anything higher than the expectations set by some insurance companies (3 patients/hour) is a surefire way to exhaust your PTs and tank your patients’ positive outcomes. A more reasonable workload for PTs sees them working with 1–2 patients in an hour, so they have enough time to give each patient the attention they deserve.

The role of technology in reducing physical therapy burnout

When it comes to technology in the healthcare space, artificial intelligence has a ton of potential to help with physical therapist burnout. But a growing trend among clinic operators (and a growing fear among physical therapists) is that this technology might replace PTs altogether. But the right piece of technology can give you the best of both worlds: less churn for your clinics and happier, healthier PTs to provide quality care for your patients.

Again, that’s because software like Exer Health would:

  • Make your PTs’ day-to-day lives less stressful, so they can thrive in their careers
  • Give PTs more bandwidth to take on more patients who can do sessions remotely
  • Empower PTs to have more efficient schedules by giving them digital health tech that supports better outpatient care
  • Add a digital layer to the recovery process that’s been shown to improve adherence and the patient experience
  • Gather reliable data for your PTs to more accurately measure patient outcomes

In other words, the prevalence of burnout is a real problem affecting clinics everywhere, but it doesn’t have to be. With the right tools at their side, your PTs can reclaim their professional lives, give better care to patients, and thrive long term in a rewarding career.

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