In the era of “fake news,” social media gossip, and Wikipedia articles that literally anyone can edit, knowing where to get the right information can be a challenge. So, it’s easy to understand why patients might have the wrong idea about physical therapy, especially when you consider the branding problem plaguing the PT profession. But, ignoring the haters—even the misinformed ones—isn’t an option. After all, misconceptions can quickly snowball, further damaging the physical therapy brand. And it’s up to those of us in the physical therapy community to right the ship. With that in mind, I’ve decided to tackle a few points of confusion that may keep patients from choosing PT first.
Do I need a referral to see a physical therapist?
Nope. As WebPT’s Erica McDermott states in this blog post, “At this point, patients in all 50 states—plus the US Virgin Islands and Washington, DC—may be evaluated by, and receive some form of treatment from, a physical therapist without obtaining a referral.” That means a current PT patient who loves his or her provider can refer friends and family directly to that therapist. It also means that a prospective patient searching for health information and provider options online can go directly to any PTs he or she discovers—and that represents a huge direct-to-consumer marketing opportunity.
Are physical therapists doctors?
In most cases, yes, although many PTs may not refer to themselves as such. However, all physical therapy education programs are now doctoral-level, meaning all new PTs entering the workforce are doctors of physical therapy. And while there are still therapists practicing with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, many have gone on to earn transitional doctorates, or tDPTs. That being said, the lingering lack of educational uniformity—with respect to degrees as well as continuing education criteria—is likely a tremendous contributing factor to the overall PT branding problem. But, that’s another conversation for another day.
Is physical therapy only appropriate for people who have been seriously injured?
Definitely not. Physical therapy is beneficial for all manners of care, including diabetes management, cardiovascular health, pain management, and preventive care. The PT scope of practice allows licensed therapists to evaluate and treat individuals for existing musculoskeletal conditions and catch potential problems before they negatively impact an individual’s daily life.
Are opioids a cheaper alternative to physical therapy?
As a healthcare provider, you’re no doubt well aware of the dangers of opioids, so you might be surprised to see this question here. After all, the ongoing opioid epidemic has been a hot-button issue in the media lately. And yet, as of 2015, more than one in three Americans had received a prescription for opioids. We know opioids are highly addictive and that overusing them can be lethal. Furthermore, opioids don’t address the underlying cause of the pain. And while the initial out-of-pocket cost for physical therapy may be higher than a prescription for painkillers, the long-term expense associated with prolonged opioid use—and the potential side-effects—can end up costing the patient way more in the long run.
Is bed rest a better solution for pain and injury than physical therapy?
As a kid, there was no better cure for anything that ailed you than bed rest and a bowl of chicken noodle soup. (Personally, I was always a firm believer in the healing properties of Chicken and Stars.) But, as a grown-up—er, an adult—and a licensed healthcare provider, you know that musculoskeletal injury requires a little more comprehensive intervention than soup and sleep. And while your potential patients may not be downing bowlfuls of soup to alleviate their pain, many may be under the impression that rest is the best way to heal. However, prolonged stationary periods can cause muscle stiffness and atrophy as well as loss of tendon flexibility—all of which could lead to reinjury later on. That’s why it’s important to promote the benefits of movement therapy when it comes to injury recovery.
Why choose PT when massage therapy, chiropractic care, or personal training is cheaper?
You know what really grinds my gears? When people compare physical therapists to massage therapists, chiropractors, and personal trainers—and I’m sure I’m not alone. That’s not to say those professionals don’t play a role in patient recovery. In fact, many of them provide services that are complementary to physical therapy care plans. However, of those four types of professionals, only one focuses on movement and restoration of the entire body and is qualified to evaluate, diagnose, and provide treatment. (Hint: It’s physical therapists.)
Even in the Information Age, it’s easy to be misinformed. The answers to these questions probably seem like no-brainers to you, but to your patients, finding the right information often requires a lot of legwork. PTs across the country have their work cut out for them when it comes to improving their industry’s image and educating the general population on the benefits of movement over meds. Standardizing industry characteristics—like physical therapy education requirements and professional designations—represents a big, and necessary, step toward improving the public’s perception of PT. But, every therapist must make an effort to educate the public and advocate on behalf of the entire PT profession. Only then will we begin to see meaningful, lasting change.