At most PT clinics, patients receive their first and last impression of a practice at the front desk. In an effort to enhance the patient experience, Athletico Physical Therapy—a multi-practice provide with more than 900 locations in 25 states—is reimagining the important role of its front desk and operations associates, empowering non-clinical staff to create a more engaging and personalized patient journey.
In this Q&A, we chat with Therese Southworth, PT, OCS, Athletico’s Vice President of Patient Journey to learn more about this initiative and how the company is revolutionizing the way patients, employees, and therapists experience the front desk. Therese details how Athletico is transforming its front desk across each of its neighborhood locations to:
- Create a more welcoming and streamlined experience for patients,
- Minimize administrative bottlenecks, and
- Involve their employees in the patient journey, improving engagement and buy-in overall.
Tell me a little bit about yourself, Therese.
I’ve been a PT for more than 35 years and I’ve seen a lot of evolution in the industry. I was in private practice for 12 years before joining Athletico in 2012 as a multistate Region Manager. I love the physical therapy profession and have actively treated patients and focused on improving clinical operations throughout my career.
Two years ago, I joined the Operational Excellence team as the VP of Patient Journey, and over the past year and a half, we’ve concentrated on how the patient experience intersects with the front office. We look for ways to improve that interaction and enhance the overall patient journey because it is so closely tied with clinical outcomes.
What did Athletico’s front desk operations look like before this initiative?
We maintained a relatively typical office set-up—a front office coordinator sat behind a desk working on a computer, taking phone calls, and entering patient information. They would hand new patients a clipboard with small stack of paper or a tablet with outcomes questions and have the patients complete their paperwork while the coordinator worked on something else. It was all a little disconnected. The patient experience was about us telling patients what we need from them. Only after all of that did the patient finally interact with their clinician to begin addressing their concerns.
What inspired you to reshape your front desk operations?
I have always wanted to influence and improve patient outcomes. In 2020, I read a quote from Paul Mintken, who is recognized by the APTA for excellence in teach orthopedic physical therapy: “Your interaction will far outweigh your intervention…and how quickly you start the intervention can positively or negatively affect your outcome.” Even someone with astounding clinical excellence believes that how you interact with a person is going to outweigh what you do with them. That was a bit of an “Aha!” moment for me.
There is research supporting the fact that patient expectations, beliefs, and the therapeutic alliance all drive therapeutic outcomes. How a patient is treated in the front office and how quickly we start their care has a big influence on their recovery overall. We want to allow the patient care team to focus on developing meaningful connections with the patient—not their paperwork—and set them up for success.
We also recognize how strongly a patient’s beliefs and expectations influence their outcomes. And if we don’t have everyone on the team fully bought into what physical and occupational therapy can offer, then we’ve missed the opportunity to provide the best care for that patient.
Each member of the staff can enhance a patient’s expectations and beliefs in what they’re doing—and if they’re trained on how to do that—it’s very purposeful.
What are you hoping to achieve through this change and where did you start?
First and foremost, we want to influence clinical outcomes positively and measurably. We want to improve the patient connection and experience with Athletico. We also want to make sure the patients are aware of where they are on their journey, where their successes are, and join them in celebrating those “moments that matter.”
My peers and I began to explore what the patient journey could look like at Athletico. We realized the importance of all interactions and worked with external consultants to better understand and map the patient journey. This allowed us to identify the moments that matter to patients and opportunities to create meaningful change. To better support our aim, we established several new roles within the Patient Experience team, including the Patient Experience Coordinator (formerly known as the Officer Coordinator).
Clinicians tend to focus on specific areas of patient progress, but patients aren’t always looking for the same things. If we look at the patient experience and map out their journey, we see that what matters to the patient needs to be evaluated and communicated differently. For example, when a patient is walking out after their first appointment, it’s a big moment that matters. So, we start to say, “How can everybody on the team have a hand in improving that moment?”
What changes have you made so far?
We are currently implementing administrative changes and have created the Patient Experience team to lead the transformation. To automate administrative functions and increase patient-facing interactions in our front office, we are piloting new processes and preparing to launch several digital initiatives. For example, we are introducing an online patient portal which will create a digital environment for patient paperwork and communications, allowing patients to submit paperwork and connect to their care plan remotely. We also have clinical and operational leaders going through “The Best First Visit”—a new training program focused on creating the best clinical experience at the start of care. We’ve begun to redesign interactions and reeducated the staff on what they’re going to be doing; however, there’s still a journey ahead of us.
The biggest changes that have taken place have been regarding the Patient Journey team. So far, we’ve taken an entire team of administrators (which comprises more than 50 people) and essentially moved them to our Operational Excellence team to design and support the ongoing changes for both our field and centralized teams. We’ve also added more patient-centric roles in general. Overall, this team is responsible for change management throughout the entire organization and is currently focused on centralizing administrative functions.
We’re even changing job titles to reflect how employees should approach their time in the clinic—like Patient Experience Coordinator (PEC), for example. Eventually, the plan is to look at different metrics like churn, patient satisfaction, NPS®, and outcomes, and train the PECs to understand, evaluate, and take action from this data to influence our performance. The training involves a few components, like live team instruction, one-on-one mentoring, and digital training around the new initiatives (e.g., the patient portal). Then they will be able to intervene at key moments in the patient experience. It’s exciting to be able to evolve their role in that way.
We are beginning with a pilot to measure impact and adjust. From there, we will phase the roll out to all clinics over the next few months. I think the key to success is to automate and integrate as much as you can so that each interaction with a patient is face-to-face and personal. The front office should be just as focused on exceptional patient care as our clinicians are each day.
How has the staff felt about this transformation?
Everybody’s excited about it. Change can be challenging to implement, but I think it’s being received well because it’s working to improve the patient experience, patient outcomes, and even patient loyalty. Our priority as rehab therapy professionals is to improve patients’ quality of life—and we have worked to make sure our entire team understood this from the very beginning. I think people really like being a part of the “let’s make it better for our patients” mindset.
What advice would you give others who are interested in enhancing their front desk operations?
We need to broaden our view of the role of “front desk operations.” Realize that every piece of paper, computer, and telephone that you’re putting in front of your non-clinical staff is a barrier between them and the patient. It’s important to recognize that we are all a component of the patient experience and, with proper connections, each of us can help drive the outcome of physical and occupational therapy. And, most importantly, the key components of therapy—belief, alliance, trust—can be managed by more than just the therapist.