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Outpatient Physical Therapy

What is outpatient physical therapy?

An outpatient is a patient who receives medical care without being admitted to a hospital. Outpatient appointments may include physical therapy, often called “PT” for short. Outpatient physical therapy consists of a series of visits to a clinic in a hospital or to a stand-alone facility separate from a hospital.

Physical therapy appointments are typically 30-60 minutes long and occur 1 to 5 days per week. The PT schedule is decided during the first visit, called the initial evaluation. The schedule may change over time based on patient needs.

Many factors are considered when deciding the frequency and duration of care. These include: the injury or condition, how the patient improves, the type of physical therapy treatments, the patient’s schedule and availability, insurance coverage, and costs of care.

Outpatient physical therapy (outpatient PT) consists of a series of visits to a clinic in a hospital or to a stand-alone facility separate from a hospital.

Outpatient physical therapy (outpatient PT) consists of a series of visits to a clinic in a hospital or to a stand-alone facility separate from a hospital.

Getting ready for your first physical therapy visit

Even for patients who had PT as an inpatient, outpatient PT may be different. Here are some tips to help you prepare:

  • Ask what you need to bring with you. This may include insurance forms, photo ID, doctor referral form, medical records, test results, or other information.
  • Make a list of any questions you have.
  • Write down any symptoms you have been having. If the list is long, write down the most bothersome first.
  • Write down any important information from your medical history, such as medications, surgeries, or injuries.
  • Write down the names and contact information of your physician and/or other health care providers who need to know your progress
  • Wear comfortable clothing and supportive footwear. Tight or formal clothing may limit your ability to perform PT activities.
  • Bring any assistive devices or mobility aids such as braces, orthotics, crutches, or walkers.

It is helpful to write down the questions you have for your physical therapist so that you remember them. You can bring this list to your first appointment to ensure that those questions get answered. If you have a lot of questions, put the most important ones first.

Lindsey Christoffersen, PT, DPT, C/NDT

What to expect during your first physical therapy visit

The first PT appointment will focus on understanding needs and setting goals. Your physical therapist will:

  • Ask you questions about your health and the reasons you are coming to physical therapy.
  • Perform a detailed exam. This may include tests to measure your strength, balance, flexibility, coordination, and posture. Physical therapists may also use their hands to feel (palpate) how your joints and muscles are moving, watch how you walk (gait), or observe how you perform activities like climbing stairs or standing up from a chair (functional activities). For children, the physical therapist will also see if they are playing and moving like other children their age (gross motor skills).
  • Talk with you about your goals for physical therapy.
  • Provide education. For example, you may learn exercises to do at home or ways to decrease pain.
  • See if you need special equipment, such as an orthotic or walking device. If you do need special equipment, the physical therapist will either provide it for you or tell you where to get it. You will also be taught how to use the equipment safely.

Physical therapy is designed specifically for the patient. Your PT might be very different from what other patients are doing in the same clinic. Your plan might also change week to week.

In general, ongoing PT visits include:

  • Questions and tests to assess symptoms and measure progress
  • Treatments and exercises to address specific problems
  • Instructions for precautions and exercises to do at home
  • Setting up your next appointment

Getting the most out of physical therapy

It is important for patients and families to partner with their physical therapist to get the most out of PT.

  • Keep your appointments, and be on time. Sticking to the schedule is important to help you get better.
    • Show up for appointments. The PT schedule is based on your needs and goals. If you miss an appointment, it can change what you are able to do in future sessions and affect your progress.
    • Arrive on time or a little early so that you are ready to start at your scheduled time. Arriving late will limit your time with the physical therapist and can impact the care of other patients.
  • Let the clinic know if you need to cancel. Patients who don’t show up without letting the PT clinic know ahead of time (“no shows”) disrupt the schedule and impact your ability to make progress. Frequent no-shows may result in discharge from physical therapy, even if you are not better. No-shows or late cancellations may also result in a fee. Be sure to understand the cancellation policy of your clinic; this should be given to you at the start of your care.
  • Do your best during each session. The effort given during PT is key to recovery. You get out of physical therapy what you put into it.
  • Follow all instructions or precautions. This may mean changing the way you do an activity. Or you may have to limit the use of a part of your body. It is important to follow these instructions to prevent injury or delay your recovery.
  • Do home exercises as instructed. If exercises or activities are given to perform at home (home exercise program), follow the instructions given by your physical therapist. This includes doing the exercises in the right way and in the prescribed amount. These exercises are important to your recovery. If you are not sure how to perform an exercise or the instructions are unclear, ask your physical therapist to explain it again or in a different way.
  • If you use devices, such as a brace or a walking device, bring them to your appointments unless the physical therapist says otherwise.
  • Be honest with your physical therapist. Speak up if you don’t understand something. Let your therapist know if you are tired or have pain. Be truthful about whether you are wearing your orthotics or doing your home exercises. Your physical therapist needs accurate information to plan your treatments and track your progress.

Physical therapy is one of your greatest resources when it comes to movement and physical function. Consider your physical therapist your partner. You are working together toward the same goals — to help you move and feel better!

Reviewed: September 2019