Background and purpose: Theoretical models of physical therapist expertise have been developed through research on physical therapists sampled solely on the basis of years of experience or reputation. Expert clinicians, selected on the basis of their patients' outcomes, have not been previously studied, nor have the patient outcomes of peer-nominated experts been analyzed. The purpose of our study was to describe characteristics of therapists who were classified as expert or average therapists based on the outcomes of their patients.
Subjects: Subjects were 6 therapists classified as expert and 6 therapists classified as average through retrospective analysis of an outcomes database.
Methods: The study was guided by grounded theory method, using a multiple case study design. Analysis integrated data from quantitative and qualitative sources and developed a grounded theory.
Results: All therapists expressed a commitment to professional growth and an ethic of caring. Therapists classified as expert were not distinguished by years of experience, but they differed in academic and work experience, utilization of colleagues, use of reflection, view of primary role, and pattern of delegation of care to support staff. Therapists classified as expert had a patient-centered approach to care, characterized by collaborative clinical reasoning and promotion of patient empowerment.
Discussion and conclusion: These findings add to the understanding of factors related to patient outcomes and build upon grounded theory for elucidating expert practice in physical therapy.