I’m grateful for a lot of things in this world—my daughter, my family, the WebPT team and my career topping the list. But one (slightly less tangible) thing I find I’m always grateful for is the inherent ability to constantly learn, grow, and change. My self-proclaimed animal is even a chameleon, and I have a unique ability to adapt to new environments and situations quickly. I think there’s something really special about having the privilege to grow as a person and to learn lessons from our ever-accumulating life experiences. That’s a big part of why I like writing these retrospectives; I really enjoy looking back and seeing how far we’ve come over the year and identifying the pieces of wisdom we can bring into the new year.
So, I invite you to join me as I look back on 2021 and see just how far we’ve come during the past year, and the lessons we’ve learned along the way.
Lesson 1: Patients want convenience—and it’s our responsibility to provide it for them.
When participating in a free market—even as a healthcare provider—one of the most important quips you can remember is “convenience is king.” Customers, patients, or whomever you’re serving will almost always prioritize convenience over everything else—even occasionally over quality or price. We saw this play out dramatically during the onset of COVID-19: Companies that made it easy for customers to access their services from the comfort and safety of their own homes racked up a ton of new business, earning them brand loyalty and shoring up the future of their organization.
This affected the healthcare arena in the same way—in 2020 patients sought out the convenience of telehealth and digital solutions. They opted to work with organizations that provided flexibility and accessibility—organizations that had patient portals and online scheduling capabilities. And that didn’t go unnoticed; in 2021, private equity firms zeroed in on our massive patient market and began investing in digital musculoskeletal (MSK) companies.
We can learn from our competitors.
Digital MSK companies are fairly new, but growing rapidly. They’re fully digital wellness companies that provide (typically) non-PT-led health and wellness services—and they are booming. These are the companies that have caught the eyes of big investors, because they offer a convenient solution to a near ubiquitous problem: Patients can treat their injuries from the comfort of their own homes.
This is the kind of easy convenience that we must offer to our own patients via digital solutions like telehealth and remote monitoring technology. We must identify our table stakes and know what patients require, at minimum, for an easy clinic experience (e.g., a smooth billing process). If we don’t, there’s a good chance that—instead of turning to PT for musculoskeletal treatment—patients will have found help elsewhere. So we must commit to exploring what digital enhancements can be applied to augment our hands-on treatments.
Lesson 2: We will have to fight for telehealth privileges.
There’s a saying that “good things come to those who wait.” And while I’m very supportive of encouraging patience in people, I also believe it’s important to know when to take action. For instance, I believe our future relationship with telehealth will be directly dependent upon the advocacy actions that we take in 2022. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has made it explicitly clear this year that if rehab therapists don’t collect data and present a compelling case as to why we should be allowed to offer telehealth to our patients, we can wave goodbye to digital services upon the conclusion of the public health emergency (PHE). And on top of that, our dedicated advocacy efforts must persuade Congress to pass legislation that gives PTs, OTs, and SLPs full telehealth privileges.
Sitting patiently won’t do us any favors here. It’s up to everyone in the rehab therapy industry to join forces and fight for our telehealth privileges. Digital MSK treatment is here and we as a profession must lead the charge in incorporating this new model into our education and also embracing telehealth as part of a plan of care norms.
Lesson 3: We can successfully advocate for ourselves.
Part of why I push so strongly for professional advocacy is because I know that we can accomplish what we set our minds to. In 2021 (and frankly the couple years prior), we scored some big advocacy wins. We staved off part of the 9% Medicare payment cut and we convinced CMS to significantly reduce the impact of the PTA and OTA payment differential. And even though CMS is not currently willing to sign off on our telehealth privileges, yet, it left the door open for us, telling us exactly what data we need to bring to the table in order to practice digitally.
The only reason we scored any of those wins (and the only reason CMS is entering a potential telehealth future for rehab therapists) is because of tireless, unified advocacy efforts. We put aside the differences between our specialties and our professional goals to raise our voices until we were heard by the legislative powers that be. Even if our future list of advocacy efforts looks long, I genuinely believe we can raise ourselves up if we put our minds (and wallets) to the task.
Lesson 4: We are resilient.
Practicing medicine during the past two years was not for the faint of heart. Medical professionals were (and in many places still are) under an inordinate amount of stress. The industry is grappling with a burnout problem, a labor shortage, a dearth of diversity and patient volume that’s frankly all over the place. It’s a tough time to practice medicine and prioritize other people. And yet, despite it all, that’s exactly what rehab therapists are doing. Despite the difficulties of the past year, PTs, OTs, SLPs, and therapy assistants have found the resilience they need to help people heal. And I think that’s pretty amazing.
While every year is full of challenges, 2021 was chock full of the blowback from 2020—meaning it was pretty dang difficult across the board. I am proud of my peers and this industry for making the best of what we had, and for prioritizing our patients throughout it all. I hope that we will take the lessons that we learned in 2021 and continue to seek greatness for our profession.