Physical Therapy: Are We a Commodity?

We didn’t go to school to become one-size-fits-all widget-builders; we went to school to learn how to treat the human body—to help people feel better, move better, and live better. So it’s no wonder that several prominent physical therapists have voiced concerns about the potential commoditization of our industry. They’re worried that if patients see physical therapy as something they can simply “get,” then they’ll think that they can get it from anyone—be it a physical therapist, a primary care physician, or a chiropractor. And that’s a valid concern. I don’t ever want patients—or anyone else for that matter—to perceive physical therapy as anything other than an indispensable profession integral to the medical community. But, I want actual physical therapists to be the ones defining and owning our brand.

However, branding (or the lack thereof) seems to be a big problem right now. We don’t have the luxury of being concerned that our services might be perceived as a commodity, because, unfortunately, our services aren’t being perceived as anything at all—and that’s a much bigger problem. To the average person on the street as well as to other medical professionals and even insurance companies, our value remains a total unknown. In fact, physical therapists only participate in 6.8% of all musculoskeletal injuries, which is absurd and a total underutilization of our services. Other providers are seeing our patients instead of us, and that reinforces my point: we have no brand and therefore no emotional connection with our audience. As far as potential patients are concerned, we aren’t even in the conversation, so when they think of, speak of, or experience back pain, knee pain, shoulder pain, urinary incontinence, or surgery recovery, they don’t think of us. We’re not even a blip on their radar.

So before we get caught up in arguing semantics, defining our various specialties, and functioning within silos—before we get too far ahead of ourselves—let’s take a step back and address the biggest challenge we face right now: getting patients, insurance companies, and other medical providers to see the value of physical therapy on the whole. (If we can’t do that, there’s no way we’re getting more patients through the doors of our private practices or winning battles over higher reimbursement.) To accomplish this mission, we must unite behind a single message that will impact our audience in a huge way. I believe that encouraging patients to “Get PT” is a great place to start.

The “Get PT” slogan—and its accompanying Twitter hashtag—is a simple, concise call to action that is meant to kick-start the conversation. More than that, though, it is meant to insert physical therapy into conversations that are already happening, but that don’t currently include us. In the end, no slogan is the magic bullet solution to all of our problems. But it does stand for something. It’s actionable. It’s understandable. It’s a tool we can all leverage to begin the process of (re)branding our profession, so that we can control our own destinies. And because it’s only a tool, it’s up to us to use it appropriately—as a means to share our stories, to proclaim our value, and to generate interest in who we are and what we do. It’s up to us to use it in a way that doesn’t generalize our services, leading potential patients to believe that a licensed physical therapist does the exact same thing as the chiropractor down the street.

I read an article recently that—loosely—compared healthcare provider groups to beachfront treasure seekers. In it, author Jason Rush wrote that: “Through proper identification and stratification of their patient populations, organizations can find the patients in need first. Before they reach out to their providers, before their condition worsens, and before they end up in a setting where their acute needs outweigh their ability to manage their own care at home.” The providers who accomplish this are the treasure hunters who strike gold: “The guy walking the beach with a map, a metal detector, and a bag full of treasure made his own luck, because he was prepared and had the tools in place to be successful.”

This is our end goal: to get to the patients who could benefit from PT first, because often we are the ones who can make the most meaningful impact on their lives—not a PCP or a chiropractor. So let’s work in that direction. Let’s get behind the #GetPT campaign, because that’s the first step in establishing a stronger presence. It’s our blip on their radar. Once we’ve established that the PT brand exists—once patients know what physical therapy is and why they should seek our services—we’ll narrow our focus. And we’ll get there. We’re just taking one step at a time.

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