The end of the year is a great time to reflect upon lessons learned over the past twelve months, and I believe that there’s always something to be gleaned from our experiences, good and bad. As life has returned to something close to “normal” over the past year, I’ve found myself thinking about what we can take from our experiences during the pandemic—and perhaps revive some notions we’d forgotten during that time as well. So as we approach 2023, I thought I would share some of my thoughts from the year—hopefully providing you with a bit of wisdom you can apply toward your future.
Personal connections are paramount.
Walking through the Gaylord Rockies resort for PPS 2022 and seeing the incredible number of friends, acquaintances, and fellow PTs mingling in the exhibit hall, I realized how much I had missed the energy created by these communal experiences. I’m such a big believer in the power of collaboration and in-person interaction—which is why it was such a tough decision to keep WebPTers working from home even after the pandemic had subsided. However, it was absolutely the right decision for the business and one that requires planning and retooling to maintain our company culture.
For the most part, people need and want the personal connection that can only come from being in the same room as others. That’s why we’ve integrated quarterly in-person opportunities in our digital-first work plan at WebPT. That’s why rehab professionals returned to PPS in record numbers—to rekindle that connection with their peers. And that’s also why I believe physical therapy can never fully go virtual, but must instead embrace the hybrid model utilizing some unquestionably valuable technology additions to the therapy toolkit.
Why patient relationships are key to outcomes.
The hands-on treatment and in-person time spent between clinician and patient has been at the heart of rehab therapy for as long as our profession has existed, and no amount of technology could completely replace that—regardless of the concerns I hear from a fair number of providers.
Don’t get me wrong; telehealth and remote therapeutic monitoring (RTM) have proven to be beneficial for clinicians and patients alike. (And we should certainly push for telehealth to become a permanent fixture as it will continue to show its worth in coming years.) But it’s the in-person interactions that allow therapists to build a relationship that leads to positive patient outcomes—which will become increasingly important to care for the growing number of MSK patients with concurrent mental health conditions. The notion of the therapist alliance between providers and patients has its origins in psychotherapy, but it’s been proven to have a positive effect on physical therapy outcomes. Treatment decisions that include patient input and collaboration are far more likely to improve satisfaction, program adherence, and loyalty scores. The empathy and quality of communication from a provider have a similarly positive effect, improving patients’ understanding of their diagnosis, treatment plan, and overall satisfaction.
I love the point John Woolf makes in this blog post: communication isn’t a ‘soft skill’, it’s a ‘power skill’—one that helps patients feel welcome, comfortable, and allows clinicians to understand how a patient is feeling and what really matters to them in order to create goals they’ll want to achieve. That said, clinicians would be wise to strengthen their communication skills. May I suggest a few practices that we laid out in this blog post? They include:
- Be an active listener to understand what patients are trying to tell you;
- Make patients a partner in care;
- Ask specific questions to get better information;
- Offer explanations in plain language to help patients understand the information; and
- Continue to communicate outside the clinic.
Communication is key to building strong teams—and a strong industry.
The importance of communication isn’t limited to patients and providers, either. Good communication is the foundation of teamwork—and that’s especially true when you’re trying to get a new team pulling in the same direction. The past year has seen a number of new faces added to our executive leadership team at WebPT. The key to our success has been knowing there will be mishaps as we get to know one another. However, frequent alignment checks and open lines of communication have been integral to helping us gel.
Many clinics are probably dealing with similar challenges over the past year or two. The pandemic highlighted just how important communication could be during uncertain times, as everyone was seeking answers about regulation changes, the latest safety measures, and even their own job status. And just as thoughtful transmission of important information can do wonders for boosting morale and building a stronger team, poor communication can damage your relationships with staff—and have them looking for the exit.
Retaining your team requires frequent, transparent communication.
Our profession was not immune to the “Great Resignation” we’ve seen in the headlines; over the past couple of years, reports have shown that 20,000 physical therapists have left clinical care. And while it’s easy to get wrapped up in patient retention as a metric of business health, retaining talented team members is equally important for the long-term viability of your practice. Burnout, job dissatisfaction, student debt, and low pay among rehab professionals were the top reasons given for the 9% turnover rate we found in our State of Rehab Therapy report. Emphasizing communication can make employees feel valued, satisfied, and motivated, which goes a long way toward keeping them on your team.
If you’re looking to stabilize your business for 2023 and beyond, you want to hold onto the key personnel you’ve spent so much time, effort, and money putting in place—and that requires a solid employee retention program. There are of course a number of avenues you can and should explore for employee retention, like pay-for-performance models, mentorship and growth opportunities, and student loan repayment programs. But you’re not going to know what your employees are looking for in terms of incentives until you discuss those options with them.
Financial stability is vital for your business.
We’ve seen more than our share of emergencies over the past few years, but we are currently navigating an economy and a sky-high inflation rate that affects us all—from clinic owners to employees to patients. Unfortunately, I don’t get much say in that (outside of voting), which means it's incumbent on us as clinic owners to make sure we’re looking ahead and being fiscally proactive to protect the viability of the practice.
And while health care might have a reputation as “recession-proof,” rehab therapy certainly doesn’t always share in that benefit due to its general public perception as “discretionary” care that can be ratcheted up or down depending on what can be afforded. As patients’ budgets tighten, practice budgets are sure to do the same as many may forgo treatment visits to save on co-pays. This is where more innovative hybrid treatment models incorporating technology to adjunct in-person visits can benefit patient outcomes as well as maximize therapist utilization.
During the pandemic, loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPPS) were a lifeline to many businesses, but the COVID-19 pandemic was a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime event, and PPP loans went away in 2021. With the influx of cash into the economy—significantly contributing to the rise in inflation—there’s no guarantee that loans or other outside financial assistance will be readily available for the foreseeable future. (Well, other than loans with high-interest rates.)
Save a little money for a(nother) rainy day.
It's never been more apparent just how crucial it is to have cash reserves on hand to help you weather any storms that come along. It can be a tough ask to start setting aside money, particularly at a time when margins are already thin, but now is the time to pull the trigger on:
- implementing new business models,
- adding or ramping up cash-based services, and
- incorporating software to help automate manual processes and minimize redundant overhead expenses.
The rule of thumb we established during our webinar on navigating the pandemic was to have three months’ worth of cash in reserve, and ideally an additional three months’ worth on top of that.
And the same forward-thinking applies to each of us at an individual level. Planning ahead for financial stability during an economic downturn is just prudent. You never want to get caught unprepared for changes to your job status or income level and have to make job-related decisions in a panic should an unexpected event occur. Instead, follow these tips:
- Assess your current financial situation to understand what your “must have” needs are (and be realistic).
- Start saving and/or investing. (Personally, I am a Dave Ramsey fan, but choose your own advice to create a plan for future financial success.)
- Talk to your current employer about your plan to align with your compensation goals.
In many ways, 2022 has been about rediscovering the old as much as it was about contending with the new. We were so eager to get back to return to the way things had been before the pandemic, but of course, life only spins forward, weaving what was into something familiar but different. All we can do is go into 2023 with a plan that blends what life has taught us with our current landscape to shape a better future for ourselves and our profession.