So, what is a physical therapist? Ask around and I’m sure you’ll get a variety of answers—everything from a physical terrorist (or someone who inflicts pain and torture) to a glorified masseuse. I mean, we’ve all heard some variation of these responses before, right? And yeah, it’s sort of funny. It might even make for some great comedy if Jay Leno asked people on the street: “What is a physical therapist?” during a “Jaywalking” skit. But perception is reality—and if we don’t start actively shaping the perception people have of physical therapy, we run the very real risk of propagating the long-held misconception that PT is just a commodity—not a profession.

This is even more important right now in the midst of a rapidly changing healthcare environment. Today, direct access to therapy is shifting from being the exception to the rule, which means patients can come through your doors at any time—no prescription or referral necessary. In essence, direct access eliminates the middleman, but having no middleman changes the game. Historically, we’ve relied too heavily on physician referrals and too little on our own abilities to generate business. We still depend on physicians and insurance companies to sell our strengths on our behalf, which means the general public has a very limited perspective on what we actually do. And that’s not going to cut it anymore. Sure, referrals are important, but we are moving into a new age of healthcare—one that gives the consumer more decision-making power. With direct access, we must learn to market to a different audience: consumers.

But before we can market our individual practices—or our individual specialties—we first must identify who we are as a profession and how the services we provide benefit our current and prospective patients. We must brand private practice PT.

Now, some of you might be thinking: I know what PTs do; I know who I am; my profession does have a brand. I’m challenging you to examine those notions from the perspective of the masses. Do general consumers really understand the meaning of descriptors like “doctorate-level musculoskeletal expert” or “neuromuscular expert”? Do they know what we mean when we say we “enhance function” or “transform society”?

The short answer is “no.” And furthermore, those aren’t very emotionally compelling descriptions. To make a real connection with our audience, we have to reach them on an emotional level. We have to identify their pain points—literally—and address them. So, what problems are we prepared and equipped to solve for prospective patients? What are some feelings we want people to associate with the PT brand? Who do we want seeking our services? Is it patients suffering from chronic pain, those who’ve sustained an injury, or those who think they’ll have to live with low back pain for the rest of their lives? I believe it’s all of them—so  how then do we brand our services to appeal to the entire consumer base?

We stick up our noses at the tactics of some other professionals. But dentists, chiropractors, and personal trainers have all done a better job branding their professions than we have of ours. (Case in point: Blue Cross recently released data showing that eight out of ten back pain patients are seen by chiropractors.) Scoff all you want, but the average consumer knows what those professionals do and when their guidance should be sought. If we can’t say the same for ourselves, we certainly shouldn’t be looking down on their methods. Instead, let’s borrow some.

Now, I didn’t learn anything about branding and marketing in PT school (a topic worthy of another blog post). It was only after launching my own company—and recognizing the changes occurring in our industry—that I started to see how we can apply basic marketing principles to benefit our profession as a whole.

Last week, I spoke at the Physical Therapy Business Association’s iPT2014 conference in Newport Beach, California. The common thread of the discussions we had there rings true for PTs everywhere: We are at a critical juncture in our profession and we must adapt and be willing to change—or else, frankly, we’ll be left behind. So with that, let’s put ourselves in a position to compete. Let’s make ourselves so visible that when people think of, speak of, or experience back pain, knee pain, shoulder pain, or surgery recovery, they think of physical therapy—immediately—and know exactly where to find a private practice PT within their own community.

This challenge might sound like a tall order, but we can do it if we operate as a unified force. Of course, achieving a goal as ambitious as branding an industry takes time—and education. That’s why this month’s blog and webinar theme is centered entirely on marketing and sales. We here at WebPT are on a mission to equip you with the skills and tools necessary to propel this incredible profession forward. (On that note, be sure to check out the cool images we’ve made available for your use as part of our #GetPT movement. You can find them in this blog post.) But as I said before, we must work together, so please, add your voice to the conversation. What do you envision for the future of PT? How should we brand our private practice PT? What marketing, sales, or general business skills would you like to learn? Share your thoughts in the comments below.