Editor’s note: Physical therapist Caitlyn Tivy wrote this blog to offer advice other AC Health providers who may experience the same new-patient pushback that she has in her practice.
Rehab professionals who spend most of the day in a healthcare setting can often forget how overwhelming medical visits can be for patients.
For many patients, just stepping foot in a medical clinic is a major challenge, fraught with concerns about what might happen during their visit, what it is going to cost, and fear that the treatment will involve substantial pain.
In fact, a public survey conducted by the American Physical Therapy Association found that 71% of people who had never had physical therapy assumed PT is always painful. (1)
A little upfront work can go a long way to reducing the worries of new patients before their first encounter with you. Let’s consider three steps you can take to make the first visit a positive experience for everyone.
  1. Get a Decent Website
  2. Shorten & Send Forms in Advance
  3. Set Patient Expectations

3 Steps to Take for a New Patient Prep

#1 Build a Functioning Practice Website for Patients

Even if you’re never online, your patients are. That means in this day and age? Medical providers simply cannot afford to have a lackluster online presence.

A 2018 consumer survey found that 81% of patients will seek out online reviews of a provider to whom they have already been referred, and approximately 60% of patients will select a provider based on a robust online presence and positive reviews. (1)

In addition to improving patient confidence in a practitioner, an optimized website can also make life easier for you as the provider.

For example, you can address common patient concerns about billing, scheduling, and the like via a frequently asked questions page. These FAQs can help patients have a better sense of the time and money they will need to invest in physical therapy.

Addressing these questions online helps reduce the amount of time you as the PT are likely to spend addressing administrative and financial questions, leaving more time to do what you enjoy: Actual patient care!

A website (or Facebook page, Instagram profile, TikTok account, you name it!) can also provide a lot of valuable information for patients who have never before participated in PT.

Online profiles are the perfect opportunity to anonymously address questions that patients might be afraid to ask:

  • Will physical therapy hurt?
  • Will I have to take off my shirt in front of the whole clinic?
  • Can I bring my child if my babysitter cancels last minute?

Addressing such questions online is particularly valuable in niche practices such as pelvic health rehabilitation, where the sensitive nature of the care provided can be intimidating for many potential patients.

#2 Shorten Your Intake Forms and Send Them to Patients Ahead of Time

Let’s face it: Nobody likes filling out medical forms.

A thick stack of papers filled with confusing medical and insurance terminology is a surefire way to perplex and frustrate a new patient before their appointment with you even starts — and as PTs, we’ve all seen how frustration and anger can impact our patients’ perceptions of their pain or disability.

It may seem like a boring administrative task, but periodically taking the microscope to your intake forms is a valuable practice to ensure that you eliminate every possible redundancy. (2)

Here are a few tips for streamlining:

  • Be ruthless with the (metaphorical) red pen. Put yourself in your high school English teacher’s shoes and slash every unnecessary phrase. If you can, read over the forms on two to three separate occasions, at least a day or two apart. You’ll be amazed how a question that felt critical on Monday afternoon becomes clearly unessential on Wednesday morning.
  • Ask a non-medical friend or family member (or three) to read over your paperwork and offer their honest opinion on portions that are confusing or repetitive. Choosing a reviewer with no medical background is the best way to replicate the point of view of the average patient and avoid unconscious biases that medical or medical-adjacent coworkers may have.
  • If you have established patients you trust, ask them for their opinion, too. There’s nothing like trying to explain to your dubious 75-year-old client why you need to know the exact date of their childhood tonsillectomy to crystallize what really matters in an intake.

Sending forms to your patient before their appointment—in a secure, HIPAA compliant fashion, of course—is another way to reduce their stress and yours. Permitting patients to fill out paperwork at home allows them to take their time and be thorough and accurate.

It also circumvents the inevitable day-of problems. (Think, “I forgot my list of medications,” or “I have a record of my surgeries on the computer at home somewhere!”)

Finally, if your patient needs some assistance completing their paperwork from a family member, this is much more easily accomplished when they have advance notice.

#3 Soothe New Patient Anxiety and Fear by Setting Expectations

As PTs, we all know our reputation in the public eye: We’re the “physical terrorists,” purveyors of pain and suffering.

While we know that this stereotype is wildly unfounded in practice, we can’t deny its hold over the imagination of most prospective patients. A bit of pre-visit education can work wonders to reduce fear!

This education can take many forms:

  • A link to a blog article or YouTube video on your website,
  • An automated “What to Expect at your First Visit” email sent to all new patients, or
  • A semi-standardized script your reception staff uses to explain the basics over the phone.

Whichever format you choose, make sure it is short, has a positive tone, and uses patient-friendly language.

In addition to addressing the ever-present fear of pain, setting expectations should also some include basic logistical information including the following:

  • The preferred type of clothing and footwear to bring or wear;
  • How much time the patient should expect to spend in the clinic, from intake to check out; and
  • Your practice’s policies regarding loved ones, guardians, or caregivers being present for the appointment. (This is especially important if you’re treating minors!)

Finally, it’s worth briefing your patients on what to expect from your particular style of evaluation and treatment.

  • Are you the type of therapist who loves to be hands-on and dives into the physical examination as soon as possible?
  • Do you prefer to take a very thorough subjective history before you get moving?
  • Do you tend to administer a lot of manual treatment or modalities, or are you more focused on functional movement and exercise?

By letting your patients know what to anticipate, you can avoid confusion or disappointment—we’ve all encountered the indignant “but I thought this was just going to be a massage!”—prepare patients to expect movement-based exams and hands-on assessments, and hopefully ensure a good fit between provider and client.

By investing a bit of time and energy before your first encounter with a new patient, you can reduce administrative headaches, decrease frustration on all sides, and minimize fear and confusion about the rehab process as a whole.

Now that you’re equipped with the knowledge, get out there and start making fantastic first impressions!


1. Customer Experience Trends in Healthcare 2018. Doctor.com. (2018). https://www.doctor.com/cxtrends2018.
2. McKee, K., & Mensch, K. (2020, November 18). The Top 4 Tips for a Better PT Patient Intake Process. WebPT. https://www.webpt.com/blog/more-than-a-form-4-tips-for-a-better-pt-patient-intake-process/.