This National Physical Therapy Month, there’s cause for serious celebration—and a need for preparedness. We’ve known that our profession was poised for rapid expansion. After all, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that the PT industry would grow 21% from 2020 to 2030. While this percentage reflected a much faster growth rate than average, we could hardly predict what the pandemic would do to further increase the demand for PT. And we are starting to witness that growth now.
In the coming months, we’ll need to ready ourselves for this influx of patients and their diverse range of needs—and optimize the patient experience for all of them. Let's explore how we can best prepare to do that.
Facing the PT Market Rebound
As PTs, we are facing a tough situation. Not only are we rebounding from a significant drop in patient flow due to the pandemic (54% of PTs and 64% of PTAs experienced a decrease in hours at the height of the pandemic), we are now tasked with addressing a varied and robust backlog of issues related to our patients and the wider healthcare continuum. We’re seeing:
Are we ready to tackle these challenges?
One of the best ways to prepare ourselves is to take stock of processes to ensure operational and clinical efficiency—including our technology solutions. It’s critical we have the necessary resources and workflow patterns in place to handle a barrage of patients—without compromising the overall quality of patients’ care. If you don’t have a comprehensive technology solution to support and absorb the influx in patient volume, now is the time to create an action plan.
Working from home—or even catching COVID-19—creates its own set of challenges.
Although we know there’s a wave of increased patient volume headed toward outpatient PT practices, what are we really anticipating in terms of patient flow? Well, as of this article’s publish date, the latest pandemic-related research has gleaned that:
And, it’s important to remember that the studies on pandemic-related health outcomes are still in their infancy—whether they directly study those who had the virus, the effects of quarantine, or essential worker populations. So, to that end, we aren’t entirely sure of the extent—yet—of health issues or their lasting impacts.
Hospitals are at capacity.
As for hospitals, many are reaching—or have reached—capacity because of COVID-19 patients, and many hospitals are releasing non-COVID patients to outpatient facilities. While elective surgeries have seen both decreases and surges (depending on location and regional infection rates), projections demonstrate an expected 14% growth in ambulatory surgery center volume from 2019 through 2024. Home-based care is also expected to rise—up 15% by 2029.
Plus, there is growing evidence of the pandemic pushing people to be more proactive about their health and wellness, with a focus on preventative care.
Other circumstances are increasing our patient population.
We need to remember, too, that amid pandemic-related rising patient populations, we are still navigating the realities of a naturally growing patient population, because the US has:
- One of the highest pools of aging individuals age 65 and older,
- Decreasing barriers to direct patient access,
- More demand for medical solutions that aren’t dependent on medication,
- Increasing push toward active lifestyles (resulting in a rise in musculoskeletal conditions and injuries), and
- Improved care benefits and cost advantages.
All of which heighten the demand for PT.
We’re in an unprecedented time when our services stand to be coveted and increase at exponential rates. To help meet the oncoming patient volume, it’s the perfect time to revisit and ready your policies, procedures, and technology systems.
Leveraging Tech to Manage More Patients
The pandemic has already made us aware of how resilient and adaptable we are as a community. It has also reinforced the importance of never underestimating the value of preparedness. One of the best ways to evaluate our readiness for high volumes of patients is asking if we are:
- Equipped for streamlined office operations (e.g. scheduling appointments, patient intake, alerts, and reminders),
- Set up for expediting and organizing clinical documentation, and
- Positioned to communicate, retain, and reactivate patients.
Hopefully, you can answer yes to all three of those questions. If not, there may be simple ways to pivot your clinical processes and leverage unexplored technological solutions. Doing a deep dive into the questions above can help you identify any potential missing pieces to your strategy, and align clinic processes to make patient operations as efficient as possible.
Cover your front office bases.
We know that the patient’s journey starts and ends with the front office. But, can front-office protocols be challenging at times? Yes. And can the fate of your patient’s journey also sometimes seem fragile because of the challenges? Yes. But, with the right infrastructure in place, your front office operations can feel more foundational.
To ensure front-office procedures are efficient and airtight, employ a system that’s comprehensive and multifaceted. Your EMR solution should enable your front desk staff to:
Not only will the capabilities listed above encourage faster, more effective operations—they will help improve the patient experience and boost satisfaction—two things that will be increasingly important as the demand for PT takes off.
Optimize your documentation.
PT documentation is a time-suck (if you don’t have the right software to document effectively). However, we all know that documentation is a necessary evil, and it needs to be done quickly—without compromising accuracy. The need to execute documentation faster will only become more pressing as patient volumes rise. The shared hope here is that the more tools we have to quickly (and accurately) conquer documentation, the more time we have to focus on our patients. So, how can we speed up the process without sacrificing quality?
Elect an EMR superuser.
One common struggle I’ve seen with EMR and documentation software is patchy user understanding. In other words, I’ve seen many therapists—at one time or another—find they know just enough about their EMR “to be dangerous.” They may be familiar with some aspects of the software, but struggle to handle the minutia. That’s why it helps to have a point person in your practice who’s designated as the EMR guru. This “superuser” can then funnel their expertise and field questions as needed.
Get features that matter to your practice.
When faced with high patient volume and minimal time, it’s crucial to have technology that promotes effectiveness, simplicity, and speed. Even more helpful—adopting a solution that streamlines these capabilities. For example, many practices have found the following SOAP documentation features to be indispensable:
- Customizable, ready-to-use templates;
- User-friendly workflows for therapists;
- Specialty-specific content;
- Compliant documentation;
- In-note payer alerts, and
- Overall streamlined, quick-use functionality.
From personal experience, I found that having an EMR subject matter expert alongside a comprehensive (and user-friendly) system improved patient flow and outcomes.
Keep retention rates high.
Once your front desk operations and documentation are covered, focusing on patient retention comes next. While the former initiatives will impact patient satisfaction (and your overall retention levels), there are additional technology-driven implementations that can help improve patient retention and reactivation by improving patient communication. Patients appreciate communication that’s consistent and steady—with ample opportunity to provide feedback to your clinic. To help solidify patient satisfaction, it’s advantageous to have:
- An automated marketing platform that reactivates existing clients who have disengaged with treatment,
- An email automation system that delivers targeted content to patients and reduces dropout rates,
- A reliable, rapid method of patient survey distribution and collection,
- A means of booking encrypted and HIPAA-secure remote virtual visits, and
- A system that identifies your most satisfied patients and encourages them to easily post reviews online.
It's worthwhile to drill down your patient retention strategy as much as possible. After all, as we reported in one of our blogs, “Improving patient retention from 85% to 88% across a 14-site PT clinic led to $150,000 in new revenue.” That’s a significant piece of the financial pie; it’s worth striving for—and having the right tools in place can help you secure your slice.
While the future remains uncertain when it comes to the health fallout of the pandemic, one thing is certain: Physical therapy stands to help a tremendous amount of people. In addition to preparing by reinforcing our procedures and technology systems, we can maximally serve the populations who now need (and will need) our expertise and services by educating people on all we do. Our future is booming and bright. Let’s make the best of it.