From clinic to clinical educator - A Therapist's career path

October is National Physical Therapy Month — the perfect moment to celebrate all physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, and their unique way of helping to improve lives across the world. They provide so much more than physical rehab to help clients improve their independence, and we recognize that getting mobility equipment is only a small portion of what therapists do. They provide guidance, companionship, and education every single day.

This month, we want to show extra gratitude to those in this profession that make such an impact on clients and families lives. To celebrate this occasion, we reached out to our very own Physical Therapist and Clinical Education Specialist, Erin Maniaci, to share her career journey as a physical therapist.   


I loved school. I loved playing teacher growing up, I loved how natural learning came. And certainly, in hindsight, I loved that each year you got to check the box on that grade and start fresh on a new “task.” Going to college was the same – get good grades, check the box, and graduate! But, then what? How do you continue to grow and check new boxes? Those were questions I never asked myself until about three years after being at my first full-time job. 

After college, I landed my dream job and thought, “now to work here for 40 more years and love every second of it!”. If you’re like me, a millennial raised by boomers, I naively thought that this is just what I was supposed to do to be successful. Unfortunately, the realities of the real world hit me hard.  Paying off student loans, increasing demands at work, all while balancing a social life. This is not to say that I didn’t have great times at my job. For the first couple of years, I loved it. I dove headfirst, as I do with most things, and got involved. I even won Employee of the Year. The relationships with patients and co-workers are what kept me going. Knowing that I was someone’s biggest supporter, teacher, and shoulder to cry on was a big responsibility that I didn’t take lightly. But eventually the realities of our healthcare system took a toll on me. More work demands, less time, more patients, and no upward mobility opportunities. I found myself stuck. I was giving, what I felt was, the minimum, just to get my tasks completed. This wasn’t the therapist I wanted to be. It was then I knew that maybe being a treating therapist wasn’t my forever reality.

Beginning the process of changing my career path was daunting. I realized networking with our dealers and reps would help me find potential other career options. What do I love to learn about? What types of equipment do I enjoy? What challenges me? Do I want to go back to school to become a prosthetist? Maybe I should become a medical sales rep who stands in an O.R.? And then, wheelchairs. I loved wheelchairs! I loved prescribing them, I loved learning about documentation, I loved that each patient had a unique situation that required my professional opinion to help fund the equipment. I updated my resume and soon found myself at a small local complex rehab supplier as their new Clinical Liaison. 

In my new role, I was very focu­­sed on trying to maintain my identity as a Physical Therapist, while using that knowledge to help others. The importance of education (to which I am obviously partial) was an emerging theme that filled a void I was beginning to see in my little corner of the industry. There was a clear opportunity to teach therapists how to love wheelchairs and prescribe them properly for patients. I started learning how to create accredited courses, and finally found a groove where I felt like I was thriving. I had found something I could see myself doing for the rest of my working life. 

But there was another huge realization in my new role as a supplier. I started to notice how poor relationships between the multidisciplinary team within wheelchair evaluations greatly affected the process of providing equipment. I come from a very privileged therapy experience where we were prescribing complex manual and power chairs to nearly every single patient that came through our doors. This meant that suppliers were pouring all their best resources and energy into our rehab, providing endless high-end demo chairs, the latest options and accessories, and a loaner chair at discharge. I trustingly thought this was how all rehab and wheelchair clinics must be run. Getting to experience complex rehab in other communities forced me to remove my rose-colored glasses and see the other realities of the industry.

Along with the more classic education I was providing, I saw the importance of educating colleagues, physicians, and therapists the value of performing as a true multi-disciplinary team.  We see it all too often that within the process of obtaining equipment, one small failure or oversight of a signature can cause a huge delay in delivery. Without education, we can’t expect all parties to know the many steps in the process.  I think in any role, for me specifically being the therapist, you get tunnel vision. You do your job and then send the client off to their next step, complaining along the way about how the process is so long and arduous.  But seeing the big picture is so important for us to understand the why. If we can understand why, we can see exactly where the process is breaking down, which can lead to a solution. I think this also shows our clients that we are knowledgeable beyond the clinic and can help navigate the spider web that is funding.     

Too often I witness two different scenarios, therapists reluctant to try new chairs and choosing chairs based on benefits to the supplier rather than the client. One of which I was guilty of myself! There is always an experienced seating therapist who for one reason or other clings to a certain brand of chair. This may be what the clinic has done for years, or the culture in their rehab is reluctant about trying new chairs. Whatever the reason, this is doing a disservice to your clients. You’re giving up any opportunity for them to be aware of the options that are out there that may better fit their lifestyle and functional needs. In the second scenario, a supplier may benefit financially more on a specific ultralight chair compared to others, so they talk the therapist and client into that option based on their business model. This is the reality. And unfortunately, larger profit margins are likely because the equipment is cheaply manufactured and consequently, much less durable. So, how can we shift our mindset?

Stepping back and learning the whole picture can positively influence your professional relationships. If you can understand your role as a therapist, the role of the supplier, the funding source, and the goals of the client, you can better advocate for the client’s needs while understanding that the supplier may have their own set of limitations, just as I did as a therapist. This allows your relationship with suppliers to grow with mutual respect. The reality is that funding sources provide many opportunities and barriers to clients getting the equipment that they qualify for, so we don’t also need our multidisciplinary team working against each other. It is imperative that we recognize this and work together as a team. The goal should always be to educate the client on what the most optimal options are, while providing an opportunity for them to seek funding in alternative places.

Getting to be an educator for Motion Composites encompasses everything that I have loved for all these years. It has enabled me to see the whole picture. It allows me to share with others my new perspective. I feel so fortunate that my journey as a therapist led me here, and each bump along the way made me better as an educator. If I were to speak to young adults or provide a lecture to students in a physical therapy program, I think my topic would be “How to Pivot Your Talents Past the Physical Therapy Paradigm.” A catchy name for an hour that would really be all about how pivoting shows progress and can be your key to growth as a person and in your career. Finding or creating a career that works uniquely for you is central to your happiness. Don't be scared to go for it! 

I am so grateful for the Physical and Occupational Therapists who do stay in the clinic and work to handle the incessant demands that the field puts on us.  And I am forever grateful for the Educator Community that I have now found myself in. We have all entered this industry to make a difference in our clients’ lives. If we let funding, profit margins, or our own stubbornness get in the way, we are not truly giving our clients the best tools for success. My goal for the future is to continue to give back, as an educator and as a mentor, to those who may have lost their way. I hope that my story can inspire others to do the same and prove that even if you don’t see it at first, there is always time to find your passion and the position in the team that fits you best. A little intuition, lots of great communication skills, the ability to reflect, and you will be successful!   

About Erin Maniaci, PT, DPT

Education Specialist

Erin holds a Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Missouri. She began her career in a Spinal Cord Injury rehab hospital where she grew her expertise in seating and education. She expanded upon that expertise working in outpatient neurology and as an educator for a local complex rehab supplier. Erin puts strong emphasis on building patient rapport and cultivating relationships.