The word “Texas” is from the Caddo Indian word “teyshas,” meaning “friends” or “allies”—which explains why the Texas state motto is simply “friendship.” It was fitting, then, for the friendly state to serve as the location of the third-annual Ascend conference. The camaraderie at the two-day event was contagious, with speakers rallying all attendees to unite behind the overarching goal of advancing the entire rehab therapy profession. There were more than 15 sessions at the conference—each with its own unique take-home message—but some common themes surfaced. Out of those, I’ve pinpointed three major action items—things rehab therapists should execute in their practices today to ensure success tomorrow.

1.) Craft your story; define your brand and culture.

There’s a reason origin stories are so popular: people want to know the roots of things—they want the “why.” Unfortunately, though, most businesses fail to tell any kind of story—let alone a genuine one. Elevator pitches and about page blurbs are often saturated with jargon and cliches, making it difficult to distinguish one business from the next. And yet, what we all crave is heart, substance, and relatability. “As we get more connected through technology, we value human connection even more,” said day-one keynote speaker Chris Smith of the Campfire Effect. “This is why we need storytelling.”

Focus on the why and the how.

Craft your origin story by detailing why you became a therapist, why you opened your clinic, and how you get your patients better. Basically, avoid the “what,” because as both Smith and day-two keynote speaker Larry Benz emphasized, everyone in rehab has the same what: “meaningful work that impacts lives.” Speakers and UpDoc Media founders Gene Shirokobrod and Ben Fung put it even more simply: “How—not what.”

Once you have your story, polish it; make it succinct, cohesive, and clear. “Tell your story in a way that’s as powerful as what you actually do,” said Smith. Once you’ve got the story down pat, infuse it into every aspect of your business, thus establishing your brand, articulating your core values, and defining your culture.

Live and breathe your values—and make sure your staff does, too.

And boy, is culture important! Nearly every speaker at Ascend—from Daniel Rootenberg, who advised attendees to “teach every position in the clinic the values of the organization,” to Larry Benz, who said, “You don’t get to success by focusing on units; you focus on characters and trust”—hit on the many ways culture should drive your business. But, it wasn’t all warm fuzzies around the topic of company culture: “Self-governing organizational cultures outperform other business culture types,” explained Larry Benz, and he had the data to prove it—which brings us to our next action item.

2.) Track, manage, and leverage your data.

In his session, APTA CEO Justin Moore stated, “Tomorrow’s practitioner collects and uses standardized data.” Judging by other presentations and the overall vibe of attendees, I think he literally meant tomorrow—which for all us means now—because when it comes to outcomes tracking, time is of the essence. Numerous speakers backed up that conjecture—from Bridgit Finley, who advised attendees to “use outcomes to benchmark therapist performance vs. specializations and continuing education,” to Heidi Jannenga, who said, “If you’re not already tracking outcomes, you absolutely must start now.”

Prepare yourself for success in the pay-for-performance era.

Data was the hottest topic at Ascend 2016, and with good reason: “Pay-for-performance is here,” said Troy Bage in our jam-packed, lively, and quite provocative payment reform panel. And outcomes data is critically important in the pay-for-performance realm. After all, as the name suggests, you have to prove that your performance is worth payment. “If you’ve got to improve the health of the population [as part of the Triple Aim], how do you measure that improvement without data?” asked Bage. Rick Gawenda seconded that thought in his seminar on CJR: “We always say our patients love us. But do you have concrete data to show hospitals?”

Need more validation that you need to track outcomes data? Here are a few more golden drops of advice from this year’s Ascend presenters:

  • “Outcomes is becoming the premium to bill. You have to do it to even participate in the value conversation.” — Justin Moore
  • “We’re not going to take these crappy contracts and bad rates anymore. We’re going to use outcomes. And we’re going to increase value to increase payments.” — Mike Connors
  • “In the pay-for-performance realm, we can’t have apathy…We’ve got to get past the apathy we have around outcomes, because pay-for-performance is here.” — Troy Bage

Harness the power of the technology surrounding you.

You perform outcome measurement tools every day in your clinic. Now, you simply need to organize, track, and leverage the information you’re collecting. How? As Diane McCutcheon explained in her denial management presentation, “You’ve got good software; now you have to use it and maximize it.” Technology is an asset for rehab therapists, and it’s imperative they embrace it. After all, as Bage explained, “You can’t operate in this environment like you did 15 years ago, because it’s not the same healthcare environment.”

3.) Get involved; shape the future.

The overall takeaway from the payment reform panel: Rehab therapists are defined by the services they provide rather than the outcomes they achieve—and until they change that, they’ll be managed and paid as such. But how did rehab therapists even get into that predicament? The frustration over the commoditization of rehab therapy was palpable. “You don’t go to dentistry. You go to your dentist. Why do we say we go to PT and not [to] our therapist?” Connors asked in the payment reform panel. However, as Jannenga explained, rehab therapists partially have themselves to blame: “We’ve left it up to others to define our place in the healthcare continuum.”

Educate yourself; then, take meaningful action.

Rehab therapists can make up for the past, though, by shaping their future. “It’s critical that physical therapists start taking informed action,” explained Jannenga. That means rehab therapists must get involved in advocacy efforts. Attending Ascend—which brings together industry thought leaders, change-makers, influencers, and advocates—is a great way to start. But as Jannenga stressed during her keynote, rehab therapists must get involved in their state and national organizations—“The APTA is only as good as the voices they can hear,” she said—follow legislative changes, and fight for their rightful place in the healthcare continuum. Because as Connors explained in the payment reform panel, “Either you’re going to take a seat at the table or you’re going to be served on it.”

This particular action item is why Texas was such a fitting location for Ascend: rehab therapists are allies—and when they unite under a common goal, they can effect change. Uniform and consistent outcomes tracking is the first step; the next step is actually leveraging that data to influence payment rates, disrupt the current primary care model, reduce healthcare spend (i.e., #choosePT over opioids and expensive surgeries), enhance patient experience, and ultimately, improve population health.

Get on board the reform train—or get left behind.

But none of that is possible if rehab therapists fail to unite, fail to rally, fail to embrace outcomes and technology, and fail to evolve. “Kicking ass is not a spectator sport,” Connors explained. And to truly advance the profession, we need all hands on deck. As Jannenga said, “The fee-for-service model is broken…We as therapists are defined by the services we provide. And that has to change…We have to prepare for success in the future. You have to start planning now on how you’re going to deliver valuable care and how you’re going to prove that value to payers.”

That’s the vision Ascend attendees and speakers rallied behind, and that’s what will propel rehab therapy forward. As Daphne Scott put it, it’s far better to “be pulled by a vision instead of pushed by discomfort.”