It took expensive membership dues, countless lobbying and volunteer hours, and 25 years, but we finally did it: Direct access to physical therapy services is now available in all 50 states in at least one form or another. It wasn’t easy, so it’s important to take a few moments to celebrate our achievements and raise a glass to all of the passionate physical therapists and physical therapy advocates out there who made it happen.

Okay, time’s up—and the morning after doesn’t look nearly as bright as we’d hoped, because we forgot one essential part of the equation: For direct access to be successful, consumers have to know it exists. We have an awareness problem on our hands—a big one—and we must adjust our marketing strategy to fix it. Because when you’re marketing to consumers, physician lunches and gift baskets don’t matter much. In truth, most private PT practices don’t know how to effectively market to consumers. So, let’s start with the basics. Here are the three immutable laws of direct access marketing:

Law #1: Be Where the People Are

Marketing is typically less complicated than it seems on the surface. In fact, you could boil the formula for great marketing down to one simple equation: right message + right audience + right time = profit. Of course, the consumer controls the “right time” part of it, which means there aren’t a whole lot of captive audiences left in the marketing game. So, you’ll need to either:

  1. Be in a lot of places at once, or
  2. Place your bets where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck.

With limited resources, most clinics are going with option B. So, where should you place your bet? Here’s a hint: A study conducted in March 2002 showed that 63% of Internet users seek health information online. Let me put that another way: WebMD gets 850 million web visits per year. Looks like we found where the people are—online.

Direct access patients are more interested in controlling their own healthcare decisions, and they’re also more likely to go online to research physical therapy in their area. If you’re looking to capture and create more direct access business, you must equip your practice to compete online. Step one: If you haven’t done so already, invest in a website now—as in immediately after you finish reading this blog post. If you need some help getting started, head to Squarespace or Wix, both of which allow you to make a beautiful site on your own. It doesn’t cost much, and you’ll get your clinic online in a matter of minutes. (Or better yet, check out e-rehab, the leader in PT-specific website development and other online services.) Without a website, you’re missing the opportunity to tell 63% of web users that PT is valuable, direct access to PT services exists, and you’re here to provide them. In short, not having a website is a huge miss.

The cornerstone of consumer confidence rests in peer recommendations, especially on the web. If you’re going to increase awareness about direct access to physical therapy services, you first need people to recommend PT. Start by soliciting reviews from current and past patients and sharing them on your website. The more visible testimonials you make available to your online visitors, the more people who are on the fence about PT will actually make the leap and seek out your services.

Law #2: You’re an Expert; Prove It

You’re a well-trained physical therapy professional, and your skills and know-how improve the lives of your patients every day. That’s some pretty powerful expertise. Share it. Establishing yourself within your local community as the resident expert on all things movement isn’t just good for your business; it’s key to direct access promotion.

Speak, write, and network whenever and wherever you can. Share your knowledge, but make sure you don’t act like a salesperson. This is about building trust and establishing yourself as a thought leader. If people feel like you are a trustworthy source of highly valuable information, they will likely return to you for more information—or better, treatment.

For example, imagine writing an article for your local community newspaper on five pain issues that physical therapy could solve. Now imagine taking that article one step further and closing with a line that says “did you know you can get physical therapy anytime you want without a referral?” Chances are, the readers who made it all the way through the article—and liked what you had to say—will latch onto that final bit of information as well. And they might even go on to share it with their friends. (Who doesn’t like to sound smart, am I right?) Congrats! You just successfully educated the public on the value of PT and how to acquire it. It’s a win-win.

I’ve spent a lot of time with PTs, talking about the challenges that face our industry. They’re some of the most knowledgeable, committed, and passionate people I’ve ever met. And typically, PTs are natural teachers who have no problem explaining complicated concepts while demonstrating exceptional empathy. Many of those spirited conversations end with me saying, “So, what are you waiting for? Get out there and tell consumers what you just told me!”

You’re an expert; it’s obvious, and it’s one of the main reasons people will listen to you. Trust me.

Law #3: The Network Effect: Give Them Something to Talk About

You already see hundreds—maybe even thousands—of patients per year. All of those people know other people, too, and they all talk. So, give them something to talk about—something that benefits your business.

I’m willing to bet that at least 75% of your patients have no idea that they do not need a referral to see you. I’ll double-down that 75% of the people that patient has contact with on a daily basis don’t know that either.

Dave and Mike Manzo of Atlantic PT in New Jersey—both of whom spoke at the recent Ascend business summit—have the direct access discussion down to science. Mike Manzo takes time out of his schedule every month to meet with his clinicians and discuss the proper timing and approach to informing a patient about direct access. The key is to let the conversation happen naturally. For example, when you’re discharging a patient who is very happy with his or her outcome, it might be a good time to say, “Did you know that you can come back to see me whenever you want without a referral?” The patient will probably be excited and surprised—and he or she will likely come back. Furthermore, when such patients share their amazing PT experiences with their friends, there’s a good chance they’ll mention the direct access part. In addition to casually telling your patients about direct access, try putting a direct access-themed sign in front of your clinic, displaying an educational poster in your clinic, or wearing a button that says, “Ask me about direct access.” Just don’t ignore it. In other words, don’t not say anything.

Dave Manzo manages the business side of the direct access equation at Atlantic PT. One of his main objectives is forming relationships with other medical professionals in the community. Consider this: when you have a patient walk into your clinic off the street because a friend told them to, you might—depending on the patient’s insurance requirements or the laws in your state—need to get a signed plan of care or send the patient to a primary care doc at some point, right? Well, that puts you in the referral driver’s seat, so to speak—allowing you to make new connections that eventually could result in more physician-referred patients for your clinic. Yes, that’s right: you can actually use direct access to fuel more physician referrals. If that’s not reason enough to promote direct access, I don’t know what is.

Solving the lack of knowledge about direct access and the value of PT has to start with you, your clinic, and your community. Make yourself accessible, display your knowledge, and leverage your existing relationships. Doing those three things at scale will get direct access patients through your door and telling their friends and family all about direct access PT. It’s a huge opportunity. Sure, it’s going to take some marketing elbow grease to capitalize on it, but to the victor goes the spoils. It’s our duty to make direct access the victor.