Tips from a PT: Functional is Functional

In the world of physical therapy there are so many different divisions: geriatrics, pediatrics, skilled nursing, neuro, acute, outpatient, management, clinical, and the list goes on. The many avenues are one of the awesome things about being a physical therapist. However, this can also be very overwhelming, especially as a physical therapy student, new grad, or even a clinician a few years out of school. This is exacerbated by the number of specialties and certifications both required and available to physical therapists in order to best practice in each of these divisions. The subsequent pressure to be the expert in at least one area of physical therapy is very prevalent. This unfortunately creates a mindset for many clinicians that they have to pick one area of physical therapy to practice. They have to find the area of physical therapy that makes them most happy and make that their lifelong career. The problem with that idea is that it’s simply not true. 

I often hear therapists say, “there’s no way I could treat kids,” or “there’s no way I can treat neuro patients.” These are just a couple of examples I’ve heard over the years. I completely understand not gravitating toward certain patient populations, and if you’ve tried it, and determined that, then that’s acceptable. However, I usually find people make these statements due to their own lack of confidence in their ability. In my opinion, this thought process is exacerbated by the divisions that have been created throughout physical therapy.

If we compare adults versus pediatrics in the physical therapy world we will note many obvious differences: size, cognitive level, interests, energy levels, and education level. But, if you take a step back and reassess, you will find that there are way more commonalities than differences. Kids are just small people with functional needs: same as an adult! Their functional needs may be applied differently, (i.e., accessing a playground, floor mobility, engaging in play activities, achieving independence with ADL/IADL etc.) but at the end of the day, functional mobility is required to be successful in their day-to-day lives.  

My ‘ah-ha’ moment for this happened when I became a traveling PT for three years. I was constantly changing settings and patient populations over those three years. These changes, combined with my prior permanent job experiences, really opened my eyes. I’m not saying that there aren’t differences in settings, patient populations, or specialties. But, at the end of the day we are all treating people with the same goal: increased function. 

We are trained to functionally assess people and situations and then treat the impairment in order to gain functional ability. If you keep that simple fact in mind, you will quickly realize that you can treat anyone: kids, neuro, acute, or others! You may have to do a little research or use your imagination to come up with treatment strategies to best suit your population, but otherwise the end game is nearly all the same. If you can readjust your mindset and take the diagnosis, age, etc. out of the equation, and focus on the end goal of maximizing functional potential, I think a lot of physical therapists will find increased ability to treat in a variety of settings and populations. Because the bottom line is, a person is a person, and functional is functional.