Last week, Boston was brimming with more than hot lobstah—er, lobster—rich history, and die-hard sports fans. That’s because thousands of forward-thinking physical therapists joined together to learn, network, and discuss the future of the industry at APTA NEXT. Now, if you didn’t have a chance to attend this wicked-sweet, innovation-focused, four-day event, don’t worry. I had the opportunity to sit in on sessions, try a lobster roll for the first time, and boil down (no pun intended) what industry leaders believe is “NEXT” for physical therapy. Here’s what they had to say:

Data is the currency of the future.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that we’re about to experience a monumental shift in health care. The question is: What will therapists do about it? All of the speakers agreed—therapists must collect, analyze, and more importantly, use their outcomes data to succeed in the future. (Sound familiar?) Throughout the conference, therapists were encouraged to think about how data can:

  • inform clinical decision-making,
  • improve patient care, and
  • help them articulate their value.

During her sessions, Heather Smith of the APTA emphasized that in order to collaborate across the healthcare continuum—and prove physical therapy’s value—PT professionals must speak the same language as their colleagues in other disciplines (i.e., use standardized outcomes measures). “If you can’t articulate outcomes, you won’t be able to successfully collaborate,” she warned. (As the folks on social media would say—boom!)

Standardization isn’t a bad word.

In addition to discussing the need for standardized data collection, many speakers highlighted the need for care standardization. Tara Jo Manal, PT, DPT, FAPTA, gave this year’s John H.P. Maley Lecture on barriers to innovation. She spoke to the need for standardization—not only to help improve patient care, but also to reduce provider confusion and disorganization. Now, Dr. Manal made it clear that “standardized care doesn’t equal one-size-fits-all,” but it does create a solid framework for reliable treatment. Furthermore, because standardization provides a clear view of process across an organization—or organizations—it leads to the aggregation of better, cleaner data.

Specific patient population data is key.

In the era of value-based care, therapists will have to analyze outcomes for more than just their individual patients. For example, bundled payment programs like CJR are already in place, requiring providers to present a lot of data about very specific patient populations in order to get paid. And this is just the beginning. As additional bundled payment programs become commonplace, therapists will need to continue thinking beyond the individual level and embracing aggregated data for larger patient populations.

Payment requires preparation.

It may seem obvious, but therapists need to prepare for healthcare changes—not only for their peace of mind, but also because their payments will depend on it. For example, Smith shared that when it comes to MIPS participation, CMS estimates that “an average billing therapist would lose $4,600 a year for noncompliance.” Ouch. Even though fines like this won’t become a reality for therapists until at least 2021, that doesn’t mean they can simply sit back and wait for these changes to hit.

New regulations for providers will be in effect as early as 2018. For example, Smith announced that next year, all Medicare Part B providers will have to include new relationship codes on all claims. These codes will indicate which providers are responsible for what costs for the duration of a patient’s care. And as we continue to move from a fee-for-service payment landscape to one driven by value-based care, payers will absolutely determine payment based on meaningful outcomes data. That means it will be crucially important for therapists to start collecting data now—or risk getting left behind.

If therapists don’t step up, others will.

In almost all of the sessions, speakers focused on the fact that if therapists don’t own their role in promoting the health and wellness of entire populations, other providers will. And in my mind, this is the greatest threat to the future of physical therapy. If the industry doesn’t standardize care, prove value through outcomes, and take on a larger role in educating the public on the importance of movement, other professions will fill the void. And that’s a huge disservice to our communities, because therapists are the most qualified providers to do all of those things. It will take work, but therapists absolutely must arm themselves with data, embrace change, and step up to meet new challenges and stay relevant in this ever-changing healthcare landscape.

Were you at NEXT? How was your experience? I’d love to hear what you gleaned from the conference—and whether you prefer hot or cold lobster rolls (kidding, kind of)—in the comments section below.