Country music stars took over Nashville last week for the CMT Music Awards, but the only celebrities I was looking out for were at the Gaylord Opryland Resort. From Ben Fung and Sharon Dunn to John Childs and Fred Gilbert, the PT industry’s biggest stars gathered in Music City for APTA NEXT, a four-day conference focused on physical therapy education and innovation. If you didn’t have the chance to attend, here’s a look at what’s in store for the PT profession:

1. Cognitive Diversity

In their presentation, Heidi Jannenga, PT, DPT, ATC/L, John Childs, PT, PhD, MBA, FAPTA, OCS, Clare Coonan, and Julie Fritz, PT, PhD, FAPTA, discussed the importance of cognitive diversity in physical therapy private practice. Fritz pointed out that—unlike their male counterparts—women are not presumed to be competent. Ironically, “business startups are more likely to succeed if they have women on their executive teams,” said Coonan. In fact, according to Jannenga, studies show businesses are 20% less likely to go bankrupt when they have at least one woman on the executive board. “It’s not enough to talk about the challenges women face,” Childs insisted. “We need to talk with the women on our own teams.”

But the group was clear that diversity is not only about including women; it’s also “about bringing together multiple individuals who have different ideas, perspectives, and creative influences,” said Jannenga. “The more diverse we are, the more innovative we become,” Childs explained. Conversely, as Coonan so succinctly put it, “ignoring collective intelligence can lead to collective stupidity.” Thus, “as a leader, your job is to get access to all relevant information,” Coonan expressed. “Make sure you’ve got [your patient population] represented in your decision-making.”

Jannenga concurred: “Make sure everyone has a voice—front office, back office, PTAs, etc.—and embrace your community. Leaders who embrace a conscious mindset gain a competitive edge, build sustainable employment, and invest in the future.”

2. The Silver Tsunami

“How long do you think you’re going to live?” Dr. Carole B. Lewis, PT, DPT, GCS, GTC, MSG, PhD, FAPTA, asked the audience during the 47th Mary McMillan Lecture. Her question underscored the importance of attending to America’s aging population: “Older people don’t want to live long lives in pain and disability,” Lewis said. Thus, PTs must prepare for the so-called “Silver Tsunami”—the impending and substantial rise in the American workforce’s median age—for their patients and themselves. “Geriatrics is where our profession works,” Lewis proclaimed. But, most patients and other healthcare providers don’t know that. “We really undersell what we do as a profession on all levels,” Lewis explained. “We need to show the world what we can do to help the world age successfully.”

To that end, Lewis called for changes to physical therapy education: “Every physical therapy program should have a course in geriatrics, and every faculty should include at least one geriatric specialist.” But updating graduate programs is only one piece of the puzzle; PTs must also “stay current with research-based evidence [and] welcome the change that new evidence-based ideas bring.” Lewis also cautioned that “substandard care will destroy our profession” and urged physical therapists to practice at the top of their license—or risk dragging down the whole profession.

3. Pain Management Revolution

In the 21st John H.P. Maley Lecture, Steven Z. George, PT, PhD, described his roadmap to a pain management revolution—one that will help physical therapists better understand and treat pain, which, as George pointed out, is both a symptom and a disease. As evidenced by the opioid epidemic in America, “pain has had an increasing societal impact over the last several decades,” George explained. “Our society is in need of a non-pharmacological solution for pain.”

However, PTs haven’t done much to help. In fact, “physical therapists routinely deny their patients the full benefit of exercise by stopping early due to pain,” said George. Furthermore, “current educational patterns will leave our profession ill-equipped for the future.” He revealed that, as of last year, only 6% of schools had a course dedicated to pain, and he suggested that we need double or triple that proportion.

George believes that “a pain management revolution will prevent us from perpetuating practice patterns that continue pain and suffering” and will help poise physical therapists to become the ideal pain provider, someone who “differentiates pain and suffering, appropriately de-medicalizes pain, and offers hands-on treatment.”

Vive la révolution!

4. Age of Outcomes

Consumers in the 21st-century have more choice and power than ever—including when it comes to their health care. That means, as Troy Bage, PT, DPT, MBA, put it, “We need a way to differentiate satisfaction.” According to Jannenga, outcomes is “the one tool that’s really allowing you to demonstrate progress.”

But, this is nothing the industry hasn’t heard before. As Bage pointed out, “Outcomes aren’t new. We’re just talking about it more now because payers are talking about it. When payers start forcing policy, we’re much more on board.” When it comes to outcomes, however, providers shouldn’t wait for payers to dictate documentation and reporting methods; instead, they should work to get out in front of regulatory changes. “If we want to truly survive,” Heidi Jannenga explained, “we have to be able to prove our value with objective measures. Furthermore, she noted, to become key players in the new healthcare economy, PTs must select outcome measures recognized outside of the rehab therapy realm.


Change is inevitable—and necessary—but the heart of this industry will always be the patients, as proven by the spirited exchange between #TeamHands and #TeamTech during the Oxford Debate. I had a front-row seat for all the clapping, running, cheering, and dancing (plus some pretty inspiring sessions and conversations), which meant I left Nashville feeling thankful and humbled that I work at a place where I’m able to help support rehab therapists achieve greatness in practice. There is no shortage of passionate, opinionated professionals in this industry, especially as we look to the future of PT—that is, the #FreshPTs and current PT and DPT students who will undoubtedly leave a positive mark on this world. Until NEXT time, stay classy, physical therapy.