Physical therapy has an image problem. We do a terrible job of telling our story. How do we change this? I've got some ideas, but they aren't the traditional way of doing things. It's part of what I'm doing at GetPT1st, telling a different kind of story, one that is easy to share. Here are some thoughts to consider and a call for some unity in the profession.
What is physical therapy?
Before we can tell our story, we have to know what is our story. With such a diverse profession, how do you condense it all down into one sentence or even one paragraph??? What is the essence of physical therapy, of how a physical therapist can help people? Is it in the details of techniques and methods? I don’t think so, because that is constantly changing (hopefully for the better). Let’s come back to this question after we look at some other questions.
Who is our audience?
Physical therapy is a niche field. Not everyone will be receptive. Some of this is cultural, some of this is based on personal experience. Who are the people we are trying to reach? Some will only consider PT if all else fails (meds, injections, surgery) or if they haven’t gotten success with their primary caregiver (doctor, chiropractor). Are we trying to convince people to change their minds? People don’t like to admit when they are wrong, even if it’s obvious that they are. We need to identify the people most likely to be receptive.
What is important to our audience?
This is the why part of the equation. As therapists, we like to focus on the details. We love research and data. But most consumers/patients really aren’t all that interested in the methods, they want results. Said another way, while the stuff in the middle is crucial, it isn’t as important to them as it is to us. Sure, some patients will seek out a provider that offers a special technique, but why? Is it really about the technique, or that someone they know/trust had success with this technique and then recommended it? In the end, it all started with a story.
Why do we do what we do? What do we believe in? Do we really believe that we are the providers of choice for those dealing with musculoskeletal issues? Do we really believe that we can improve our client’s quality of life? We have to start with these questions.
Why are some so scared of the word marketing?
I’ve worked with therapists from all over the US, and some have a visceral reaction to the idea of marketing physical therapy. Why is that? Is it because social and traditional media is flooded with bogus health scams and we’d rather throw the baby out with the bathwater? Do we assume any and all advertisements are inherently deceitful? Yes, there’s a lot of crap out there, but marketing is more than just gimmick ads and outrageous statements. Marketing in it’s simplest form is about telling a consistent story of your brand. Ads are one way to do this, but they aren’t the same.
Whether you like it or not, the story of physical therapy is being told, so we might as well have a say in how the story goes. Currently, many people understand the story of PT as “pain and torture” or “no pain no gain” or “physical therapy is painful.” Have we ever considered how damaging this is to the brand of physical therapy? We have a chance to correct this, and we really need to.
How can we avoid the pitfalls of terrible marketing?
So what are some ways that marketing goes bad? What are some pitfalls that we can avoid as a profession? Gurus are all the rage. People love hearing from the experts, even if those people aren’t experts. Consider social media. If you tell people you’re an expert often enough, and use the right hashtags, you’ll eventually get some people to follow you. But eventually you are found out, and there are few things people hate more than being tricked and feeling like a fool.
Another problem is over-promising/under-delivering. You better believe you will catch some eyeballs if you choose to make exaggerated claims on results. It will get you some short term gains, but once you fail to perform you will likely have lost a customer for life. This certainly doesn’t help the profession either. We need to think long term, not just about how to make the most money today.
What are we building our story on?
We like to think we’re rational creatures. We’d never waste our resources on stuff without checking into it first...right? Even the most scientific among us make purchases based on how it makes us feel. We buy the house because it “feels like home”, the car because of the status symbol, and the phone because we want to feel like we’re cool. We eat at the expensive restaurant not really because the food is all that much better, but the total experience we have while we’re there. After all, wine tastes better when consumed from expensive glassware or when we’re told it is more expensive, but not in a blind taste test. Almost all those decisions and experiences are sought out not by logic, but by emotion.
If this is the case, why is the traditional marketing model for physical therapy built on research and data? If consumers made healthcare choices based on research and data, physical therapists would be the primary healthcare providers for people with low back pain. As it is, depending on what part of the country you are in, only 7% of people see a PT first when they have an episode of LBP.
What is our story?
Okay, back to the beginning again. What is our story? What is physical therapy? We have a rich history of helping people, of being providers who spend the most time with our clients, or getting people back to the things they love. We need to be telling this story. Not exaggerated claims, not promoting guruism, but articulating in a consistent and clear way why people should see a physical therapist. There are countless amazing success stories out there, we need to share those stories. The story of physical therapy is one worth telling.
Parting shot - A plea for unity
We have a lot of differences in the physical therapy community. Different methods, different theories, different ways of looking at things. Unity doesn't mean we stop trying to get better. We desperately need to continue to improve the profession and the science behind what we do and how we do it. Unity means realizing that we have far more in common than what divides us and highlighting those parts. We don't have to be our own enemy. By working together we can do some really amazing things.
Want to help promote PT and Unity? Check out #GetPT1st and ask how you can help!
Interested in live cases where I apply this approach and integrate it with pain science, manual therapy, repeated motions, IASTM, with emphasis on patient education? Check out Modern Manual Therapy!
Keeping it Eclectic...