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75 Questions to Ask While Shadowing a Physical Therapist

Observing in a new physical therapy clinic can be stressful. I still struggled with small talk when I was in physical therapy school and beginning my clinical affiliations. Growing up, I was a huge introvert, so interacting in social environments never came easy for me. As a kid, I always chose to read books during weddings and family reunions because I preferred to keep to myself.

Needless to say, once I decided that physical therapy looked like a pretty cool career, I was forced to learn how to improve my conversation skills. I googled “tips for small talk with patients” on several occasions. I tried to search for questions to ask during observation hours, but I couldn’t find much advice.

It can be really challenging to think of questions to ask a physical therapist, especially on your very first day of shadowing. You’ve likely never stepped foot into this clinic, let alone never met any of the staff or patients. It’s a lot to take in for a social person, and can be even more challenging for people who are more introverted.

Don’t worry though, it comes easier with practice.

When do you ask questions?

Every staff member and patient will have different preferences. Some therapists are fine with you asking questions whenever they pop into your head. Some only want to answer questions between patients. Some don’t want to answer questions when they are busy typing. Some patients won’t feel comfortable with you learning about their diagnosis or observing their treatment.

Here’s a general guideline of what you can do when shadowing:

  1. Ask the PT when it’s appropriate to ask questions
  2. Before you observe a specific patient, either you or the therapist should introduce you, and ask if it’s okay for you to observe.
  3. If the patient says you may observe:
    – Quietly observe for the first 5-10 minutes, or join in on any small chat if appropriate. Feel free to write any questions you may have in your notebook.
    – If you have a question, ask the patient if it’s ok to ask your question.
    – If it’s not a good time to ask questions, wait until you and the therapist are in a more private area to ask.
  4. If the patient requests that you do not observe:
    – Ask to observe another staff member or patient
    – Ask if you can help out with any tasks (folding laundry, cleaning tables, organizing supplies, etc.)
    – Read any textbooks or handouts that you see around the clinic
    – Ask if you can try a piece of equipment or modality to see what the patients experience

Read my complete guide to observation hours for extra advice, and download my form for recording observation hours here.


And now for the 75 questions…

Please write some of these questions down and bring them with you, especially if you’re feeling a little nervous. It’s not that weird to bring questions and write down answers, so don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. I found it helpful to bring a notebook every time I observed so I could write down anything that I learned, or any new diagnoses or medical terminology so I could learn more about it once I got home.

I hope this doesn’t need to be said, but please don’t try to ask all of these questions on your first couple of days. You don’t want the staff to feel like they’re on a serious interview. I recommend asking a few questions when you have downtime, but just really try to enjoy yourself and learn about the patients. Focus on improving your small talk and get involved with interesting conversations in the clinic.

What to ask a physical therapist:

  1. How did you decide you wanted to become a physical therapist?
  2. What was your PT school experience like?
  3. Why did you choose to become a PT versus a PT assistant?
  4. Have you always been a physical therapist?
  5. Where did you work before this current job?
  6. Would you still recommend someone becoming a PT nowadays?
  7. What are your favorite things about becoming a physical therapist?
  8. What are your least favorite things about your job?
  9. Do you see yourself retiring as a physical therapist, or have you considered switching careers?
  10. What are your typical work hours? Are you able to choose your work hours, or change them if needed?
  11. How many patients do you see per hour or per day?
  12. What types of patients do you normally see?
  13. Do the other therapists see different types of patients?
  14. How did you decide to pursue this specialty of PT? (outpatient, pediatrics, hospital, etc).
  15. Did you consider other specialties before choosing this one?
  16. Can you explain the difference between a PT and OT?
  17. Can you explain direct vs indirect supervision of the PT assistant and techs? Are you able to leave for lunch if they are treating someone?
  18. Do you work with any other healthcare providers?
  19. Do you have to call anyone on the phone, or does the front office staff call all the patients and other healthcare providers?
  20. How do you refer a patient to another provider for a second opinion?
  21. What are some interesting continuing education courses that you’ve taken?
  22. What are your most rewarding experiences with a patient?
  23. How do you manage more difficult patients? (personality differences, patients who disagree with your professional opinion, patients who cry or are angry, patients who bring up political or religious opinions, children who bite or scream, etc)
  24. Have you ever had a patient that primarily speaks another language? What did you do?
  25. Can I watch you document this evaluation / treatment? What are important things to include in the paperwork?
  26. Do you ever need to document after work or on the weekends?
  27. What is the difference between the different insurance providers? How does it affect physical therapy evaluations or treatments?
  28. Why did you do __________? (ask the patient a specific question, do something with your hands, choose to assign a specific exercise, etc)
  29. Can you tell me about this patient’s diagnosis / injury?
  30. What is a typical treatment for that diagnosis / injury, and how long will it take to heal?
  31. How do you treat patients with progressive or degenerative diseases?
  32. Are you able to do wellness or preventative exams or treatments?
  33. How do you evaluate a patient with a diagnosis of……? (ask anything that interests you! This could include spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, concussions, headaches, jaw pain, dementia, cerebral palsy, incontinence, pneumonia, multiple sclerosis, seizures, etc)
  34. Can you explain the difference between a medical and physical therapy diagnosis? Can you do tests do diagnose an injury?
  35. How often do you take vital signs, and how do you decide when to take them?
  36. Can you explain the different modalities and when you use them? (electrical stimulation, ultrasound, hot / ice packs, Game Ready, paraffin wax, etc)
  37. Have you ever taught a class or participated in community events?
  38. Do you ever give free consultations to patients or your friends / family members?
  39. Are you involved in any business or marketing for the clinic?
  40. Do you recommend any books or resources to learn more about physical therapy?

What to ask patients:

  1. How are you doing today?
  2. Are you from this city / Where are you originally from?
  3. What do you do for work?
  4. Do you have any children?
  5. What are your favorite hobbies, books, movies, sports teams, video games, etc?
  6. Do you mind if I ask about your injury / diagnosis?
  7. Are you working on any exercises or stretches at home? Can you tell me about them?
  8. Can you tell me about your experience with physical therapy?
  9. What is your favorite and least favorite thing about coming to physical therapy?
  10. What made you choose this physical therapy clinic over other ones nearby?

What to ask physical therapy assistants, occupational therapists, speech therapists, techs, athletic trainers, etc:

  1. Can you tell me about your job?
  2. Why did you choose this job?
  3. What was your schooling like?
  4. Do you have to take continuing education classes?
  5. What are your typical work hours?
  6. How many patients do you see per hour or per day?
  7. What things are you required to document for each patient?
  8. What are your favorite and least favorite things about your job?
  9. What types of patients do you normally see? (different ages, diagnoses, etc)
  10. How do you come up with new treatment ideas?
  11. What do you do if you need to progress a patient’s treatment?
  12. Do you have any favorite exercises for a certain body part / diagnosis? Can you show me?
  13. Why did you do __________? (ask the patient a certain question, do something with your hands, choose to assign a specific exercise, etc)
  14. Can you explain the different modalities and when you use them? (electrical stimulation, ultrasound, hot / ice packs, Game Ready, paraffin wax, etc)
  15. Are you involved in any business or marketing for the clinic?

What to ask front office staff:

  1. Can you tell me about your job?
  2. Why did you choose this career?
  3. Where did you work before this job?
  4. What are your typical work hours?
  5. What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job?
  6. Do you call all the patients and healthcare providers, or do the therapists also call them?
  7. How do you schedule patients?
  8. What is the clinic policy if someone cancels or needs to reschedule?
  9. How do you stay organized?
  10. Are you involved in any business or marketing for the clinic?

Do you have any tips for observing in a physical therapy clinic? Please share below!

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