Setting SMART Goals to Motivate Physical Therapy Patients

Learn how to set SMART physical therapy goals that motivate patients. Set long and short term goals for physical therapy using Healthie.

Goal setting is the principal tool for helping anyone in their road to recovery. The process of goal setting for physical therapy combines the clinical expertise and experience of the physical therapist with the experience and interests of the patient. It gives the patient a target to reach for each session and will help guide them towards success throughout their physical therapy journey. Without short and long term goal setting, patients may struggle to stay motivated and decrease interest in achieving the end result.

Learn how and when to create physical therapy goals for your patients, that will keep them motivated. Discover the best ways to streamline these goals for clients, organize your practice, manage client scheduling, and develop other offerings today with Healthie’s Free Starter Plan

When and How to Create Effective Physical Therapy Goals 

When: Goal setting is usually always done at the start of a patient's physical therapy journey. With the information gained during the initial evaluation: from the patients responses to questions and the physical therapists examination, goals should be able to be set. The sooner the goals are set the sooner a patient can start working toward achieving them. 

How: Physical therapists are required to take the multiple factors regarding the patient's interests and condition into account when setting goals for them. Having the patient be a part of the goal setting process can increase overall patient participation. Along with taking the patient’s condition and interests into account physical therapists will also need to make an outline of how they will organize the content within the goal to make it effective. Below the blog will dive deeper into the organization of your goals and how to make them motivating for your patients. 

Laying the Groundwork for Effective Physical Therapy Goal Setting

The two aspects of goal writing physical therapists should consider when coming up with an outline is the type of goal (ie. short term vs long term) and the content that will make up the goal.  To start, the general umbrella categories of goals we usually think of are: short term and long term physical therapy goals. The type and timeframe may vary depending on the patient’s condition. 

That being said, having long term goals accompanied by short term goals can help track the growth made by the patient. Accomplishing short term goals can motivate patients to continue to work toward their long term goals. They also can act as an indicator for the physical therapist to see how their treatment ideas are working and if factors need to be modified or adjusted. That being said, no matter if the physical therapy goal is short term or long term there are essential aspects that need to be included in each goal in order for it to have purpose and be effective. Goals can also provide more opportunities to check in with your clients, and Healthie’s Free Starter Plan can make these check-ins even easier by expediting calendar and client scheduling. Click here to learn how to get started with the Free Starter Plan today.Below we have highlighted two suggestions for coming up with an outline for your goal writing.

S.M.A.R.T Goals for Physical Therapy 

The acronym S.M.A.R.T is commonly used in the physical therapy field and is used as a guide to writing goals objectively. S.M.A.R.T goals breakdown the key parts that are necessary in making a goal as a whole. Below is a detail of each part that makes up a S.M.A.R.T goal in physical therapy. 

Specific — The more specific your goal description is, the better chance you’ll actually meet it. The goal should state what exactly it is that you want the patient to achieve.  The patient will have more motivation to take action if they know exactly what it is they are trying to achieve. 

Measurable — Having a measurable physical therapy goal will keep the patient on task and is another way to track their progress. 

Attainable — Is this goal achievable? Your goals should be realistic, but also stretch your patients boundaries, giving leeway for more opportunities for them to conquer.

Relevant — Ask your client “what is the significance behind reaching this goal?” You want to make sure that each goal is purposeful in getting them to where they want to be. Is it relevant to their overall journey?

Timely — Establish a timeframe to make the goals seem attainable. Giving a specific timeframe can decrease the patient's fear of having to accomplish a goal by a specific date. By allotting a timeframe that is flexible and achievable will give patients motivation to work toward accomplishing the goal. It is important for physical therapists to install confidence in their patients and make sure they know that as a healthcare professional you feel that the timeframes set are an appropriate amount of time for their goals to be achieved. 


The ABCDE acronym is another helpful tool that can be used as a content reminder when goal writing for physical therapists. ABCDE breaks down in order content that should be included for a goal to success. ABCDE stands for:

Actor — The physical therapist needs to make it clear who will be accomplishing the goal.

Behavior — The physical therapist then needs to clearly state the task or activity that will be done.

Condition — The location where the task or activity will take place and if any assistance is required will then need to be stated.

Degree — The physical therapist will then need to give a quantitative specification for the performance that will  be done; this can include time, distance, etc. 

Expected Time — Lastly, the goal should state a realistic time frame for when the goal is to be achieved by.

Utilizing these acronyms can help physical therapists stay organized while goal writing. It can lead to your goals sounding more professional and achievable. By having the goals be direct and specific can help prevent any confusion or miscommunication between the physical therapist and patient. This in turn can help motivate patients and instill trust in their physical therapists. 

Getting Patients Involved in Effective Physical Therapy Goal Setting 

Once physical therapists have an outline for writing the goals for their patients, it is then important for them to communicate with the patient and involve them in the rest of the goal setting process. An article from the Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Journal discusses a study that looked into patient participation in their physical therapy goal setting. The results of the study determined that physical therapists felt that the “outcomes [of the goals] will be improved if the patients participate [in goal setting].” The patient’s of the study and physical therapists felt that the patients involvement in the goal setting process was important.  

As a team, the physical therapist should work together with the patient to come up with meaningful and effective goals. Physical therapists should also make sure that the goals are motivating to the patient. The goals should pertain to the patient's condition but also take into account their interests. For example, if a patient’s long term goal is returning to playing basketball, the physical therapist should take this into consideration and come up with tasks and other short term goals that will help him achieve his long term goal. You can also always check in with your clients through convenient client messaging or by setting up food, lifestyle, or activity journaling with your clients. Click here to learn how to set up these features with Healthie’s Free Starter Plan today.   

The goals should be challenging but also attainable and the patient should be reassured of their ability to be able to accomplish the tasks.

9 Reasons to Use Goal Setting with Patients

1. Gives patients a sense of personal satisfaction

It is important that patients have a sense of self satisfaction when they work hard and accomplish a task during their treatment sessions. That being said, the goals being set should not only be physically achievable but they also need to be mentally achievable by the patient as well. If the patient does not feel that they will be able to accomplish the task it is going to be harder to motivate them and keep them on track.

By involving the patient in the goal setting process you allow them to discuss with you what they think is realistic and achievable. Physical therapists should challenge their patients but also reiterate to them what they think the patient can achieve and constantly remind their patients of the confidence they have in them. By challenging the patient and keeping them accountable, the physical therapist can increase the chances of patient satisfaction when they accomplish their goals. 

2. Helps patients take ownership of their health

As a physical therapist you will do as much as you can within your scope of practice to help your patients improve their health. However, the patient also has a responsibility in improving their own health as well. When goal setting, physical therapists should remind their patients of the responsibility they have in their own physical therapy journey. When success is had patients will feel a sense of self satisfaction because they played a huge role in their recovery and it has the ability to motivate them further towards new goals.  

3. Provides motivation during setbacks

Having the patient participate in goal setting can help motivate them in times of plateau or setbacks. The goals can act as a reminder that they were set by the patient and that the patient themselves believed that they could accomplish the task at hand. Physical therapists can aid in this time by continuing to encourage their patient and remind them of how far they have come. The goals can be the accountability tool that gets the patient back on track toward success. 

4. Helps with prioritizing health changes

It is important that physical therapists help the patients understand the changes that need to be made in order for them to be able to accomplish their goals. Prioritizing the changes being made and writing goals surrounding these changes can lead to effective treatment sessions. Being direct about the changes that the patient needs to make and reminding them of how beneficial they can be in terms of helping them accomplish their goals can be used as a constant source of motivation for the patient. 

5. Sets a realistic timeframe for change

This is a major component of creating an effective goal. Giving patients unrealistic time frames to complete tasks and accomplish goals can be frustrating and deter the patient from their path to success. It is also imperative that the physical therapist keeps the timeframe flexible in anticipation of any early success or setbacks.  

6. Can give purpose to exercise

Over the course of a patient's treatment sessions they may question why they are doing particular exercises. Sometimes it can be difficult to have an explanation for the patients in the current moment. Physical therapists can, however, refer back to the goals that they set with the patient. They can try to explain to the patient how specific exercises can lead to the success of accomplishing a specific goal. This may in turn motivate the patient to work harder at a task or exercise that they were previously confused or unmotivated about. 

7. Gives clarity in decision making

If the goals set are clear, direct and specific it can help with any setbacks that may occur. The goal setting process has the ability to give clarity to any future decisions that need to be made. Alterations and modifications may need to occur to a patient’s treatment program, and the goal can act as a guide in the decision making process. This in turn can decrease frustrations and confusion that may otherwise occur. 

8. Prevents patients from feeling overwhelmed

A physical therapy journey can be very overwhelming for some patients. By keeping goals simple, specific and direct it can decrease confusion and miscommunication. At times patients may be feeling unmotivated and the thought of trying to achieve a goal can be overwhelming. That is where having goals that were made by both the patient and the physical therapist to refer to can be helpful. Physical therapists can remind the patient of previous successes and their belief in the patient's ability to achieve a goal. 

9. Provides a long-lasting purpose to live a healthier life

Having goals that motivate patients to want to lead healthier lives can have a lasting impact. From the start of the patient-physical therapist relationship, physical therapists should be educating their patients and motivating them while they work towards the success of accomplishing their goals and recovery. PHysical therapists have the ability to teach skills to their patients to prevent further injury and improve function even after they have graduated from their current physical therapy journey. Patients will know what it is like to set realistic and meaningful goals and will now have the ability to do so in the future because of what they were taught in physical therapy. 

Goal setting for physical therapy does not have to be difficult. With these helpful highlights physical therapists can help guide their patients to success by coming up with motivating and effective goals together. Creating effective goals that are organized, specific and motivating will definitely have a positive impact on your patients physical therapy journey.

Using Healthie for Goal Setting with Physical Therapy Clients 

Leveraging Healthie as a way to collaborate with your clients and promote your services is one way that can help drive client success rates and overall, grow your wellness practice. Thanks to Healthie’s Goals Feature, wellness professionals can create time-specific, detailed goals for each client. Our free Starter plan provides all of that and more. Click here to sign up for $0 today!

The client portal allows patients to check-off completed items, receive reminders of their goals, and view the progress they made on their journey to any of their goals they have created in Healthie.

For clients, the goals feature is an engaging tool that will help maintain their focus and motivation. Through their desktop or mobile device, clients can: 

  • View & complete wellness goals created by their physical therapist
  • Track their progress
  • Receive in-app reminders to complete their goals ‍
  • Message their wellness provider with any questions re: their goals or challenges‍

Get started with Healthie, the #1 patient engagement platform for physical therapy.

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