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Got the Itch to Go Niche? What Every PT Needs to Know Before Narrowing In

What every physical therapist should know about specializing and going niche. Click here to learn more about your options and the possible outcomes.

Erica McDermott
5 min read
July 5, 2016
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If you’re considering going niche, you’re not alone. According to the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialists (ABPTS), there are more than 18,000 PTs who have demonstrated the clinical knowledge and advanced skills necessary to receive physical therapy specialist certification in their specific area of practice.

The ABPTS offers certification in these eight areas of physical therapy:

  1. Cardiovascular and pulmonary
  2. Clinical electrophysiology
  3. Geriatrics
  4. Neurology
  5. Orthopaedics
  6. Pediatrics
  7. Sports
  8. Women’s health

But, those aren’t the only specialty options. In this article, Pamela Duffy—a physical therapist who’s held several leadership roles with the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)—discusses five other physical therapy fields recognized by the APTA:

  1. Performing arts
  2. Obesity management
  3. Health clubs
  4. Emergency/urgent care
  5. Animal therapy

And there are more physical therapy specialities emerging all the time. While many providers decide to go niche, not everyone does it for the same purpose. In fact, there are probably as many reasons to narrow in as there are specialities. Here are a few that might be motivating you:

  • To differentiate yourself from your competition.
  • To better define your brand and marketing strategies, so you can more specifically target—and appeal—to your ideal clients.
  • To take advantage of a gap in service offerings in your region.
  • Because you’re an expert—or working to become one—in a particular field and thus prefer to only treat within that field.

Whether you’ve got a niche in mind or you’re still trying to figure yours out, read on to learn what you need to know before pursuing a path in your specialty.

First, you’ve gotta love what you do.

In a PressNomics presentation earlier this year, Heidi Jannenga, the president and co-founder of WebPT, had this to say: “If you’re doing something you love, of course it’s going to spread out of this little bucket that we label ‘career.’ It’s going to impact every other aspect of our lives—just like the other aspects of our lives impact our careers. Nothing in life stays neatly in its own bucket.” Well, the same applies if you’re doing something you dislike; it’ll impact your life, too—which is why it’s so important to do what you love and not settle for anything less. (Remember Steve Jobs’s epic commencement speech?)

If you love being a physical therapist, you’re more than halfway there. Now, it’s time to get specific. In a whitepaper titled, “Build Your Practice by Finding Your Physical Therapy Niche,” Jeff Worrell, the founder of Advantage Medical, offers a few suggestions for finding a specialty you’re going to love—and excel at. First, Worrell says, “take some time to jot down your as specific as possible.” Then, “look for similarities and highlight [them].” You may find hidden clues about the opportunities to which you naturally gravitate most—or areas you’re particularly passionate about. For example, if you see common threads of working with athletes, you might love specializing in sports therapy. If you have lots of experience working with children or the elderly, then pediatrics or geriatrics, respectively, might be your thing.

You can also dive a little deeper into finding your niche by completing Worell’s questionnaire (we’ve actually mentioned this resource before in this post about marketing your niche and this one for occupational therapists, because we’ve found it to be such a good tool). It includes the following questions:

  • What type of physical therapy work do you enjoy doing?
  • What types of patients do you enjoy working with?
  • What experience do you have that can help you be successful in your chosen niche?
  • Are there other physical therapists who have built a successful practice in this niche?
  • What is the market potential for the area you are interested in focusing on?

Second, the market has to support your work.

That last bullet brings us to our second point: to be successful in your chosen niche, the market in which you work must demonstrate a demand for your services—otherwise, you won’t be able to make ends meet. For example, imagine wanting to open an animal therapy practice that specializes in treating horses. If you work in the financial district of San Francisco, then you might have some trouble finding clients. The market just isn’t going to support your practice—which means you’ll either have to choose a new niche or a new location.

Before you set up shop anywhere, WebPT’s Charlotte Bohnett advises doing your due diligence with research: “After all, location plays a huge factor in the success of your practice,” she writes. Bohnett suggests making sure you know the answers to these important questions about any location you’re considering:

  • Is the state you work in—or want to work in—a direct access state?
  • What are the tax implications and fees for a small business in that region? (Be sure to research regulations for the state, city, and county, as each may have different rules.)
  • How many people live or work in that community—and what are their demographics? Based on this information, how many people do you estimate will become patients?
  • How many physical therapists work in that area—is the community saturated, or are there gaps in service offerings that you could fill? (This is another method for identifying a niche.)
  • How many other providers work in that area—and how many of them regularly refer patients to physical therapy?
  • What are the steps necessary to become a preferred provider for payers in that area? How challenging do you expect this process to be?
  • What is the standard reimbursement rate for physical therapists in that area? What should you budget for write-offs due to denied reimbursements or unpaid invoices?

For more great questions to ask when you’re ready to start shopping for real estate, check out Bohnett’s blog in full here.

Third, you’re gonna need a healthy dose of motivation, dedication, and inspiration.

According to Duffy, “Succeeding off the beaten path in PT takes motivation and dedication. Physical therapists or physical therapy students interested in entering a nontraditional PT niche should thoroughly research their area of interest and find a mentor who can both guide them to resources and challenge them.”

To find a mentor of your own, check out this list from the APTA. There, you’ll find a number of experienced therapists who have expressed interest in serving as mentors. You can also take advantage of the APTA’s special-interest groups for networking, research, and continuing education. If you’re not an APTA member—or you are and you’d still rather go the DIY route—then use your own connections and social media networks to reach out to PTs who are running successful specialized practices in your field of interest. Treat them to a coffee or lunch, and ask to pick their brains about what worked for them—and what didn’t.

Do you have the itch to go niche? What strategies are you implementing to ensure success? Tell us your plan in the comment section below.


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