A few years ago, WebPT President Heidi Jannenga wrote a Founder Letter about the importance of targeted physical therapy marketing strategies—specifically, branding the PT profession as a whole. In it, she encouraged practitioners to think bigger than themselves as individuals: “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,” she wrote. “We must brand...PT.” And her message is still relevant today. Here’s why PTs must learn to cooperate—not just compete:

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Physical therapy is still at risk of being viewed as a commodity.

Many people don’t know what physical therapists do.

Most of the general public—and many providers in other disciplines—don’t actually know what physical therapist do (not to mention the value of physiotherapy’s intrinsic patient-centered approach). Sure, a lot of people have a general idea—but those ideas range from “PTs only help professional athletes get back in the game” to “PTs are essentially glorified masseuses.” As Jannenga explained, “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.” While this may be hard to swallow, it’s true—and only a little less so today than it was when Jannenga originally wrote that letter.

A good brand connects people.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “We do have a brand!”—and what comes to mind includes phrases like “musculoskeletal expert,” “neuromuscular specialist,” or “enhance function”—then Jannenga urges you to examine that sentiment from the perspective of the people you want to help. How meaningful are any of those phrases to the patient who just wants to feel better, to move better, to feel less pain? “To make a real connection with our audience, we have to reach them on an emotional level,” she explained. “We have to identify their pain points—literally—and address them.”

A unified effort could change the trajectory of the entire profession.

The goods news, though, is that there’s still time to right the ship. And the sooner the better, because as Jannenga predicted, the healthcare tides are turning. Today, fee-for-service systems are rapidly being replaced by pay-for-performance methodologies. To survive—and thrive—in this increasingly value- and consumer-driven market, therapists must be able to not only prove their value via objective outcomes data, but also articulate that value to fellow providers and patients. That means PTs will need to work together in a unified, nationwide effort to market the entire profession (not merely their individual practices). In other words, long-term success requires cooperation—not competition.

Cooperation is good for patients—and for providers.

Healthcare is becoming more collaborative.

As the healthcare system itself moves toward more collaborative models of care, so does the manner in which providers are paid. In fact, the Affordable Care Act and other reform initiatives are driving the adoption of models such as accountable care organizations (ACOs)—which feature payment structures that reward the entire care team based on collective value. These models put the focus on the patient; they encourage everyone on the patient’s care team to cooperate in order to provide that patient with the right care at the right time—thus reducing costs and improving patient outcomes and satisfaction (hello, Triple Aim). For physical therapists to successfully establish themselves as essential participants in this type of model, they must stop looking at other providers—including other physical therapists—solely as competitors. Rather, therapists must learn to function as team players—and get their teammates (other practitioners) to recognize the value they have to offer (hello, marketing the profession).

Thinking like a “businessperson” has a whole new meaning.

Last year, Brooke Andrus attended the Graham Sessions—and in her blog post recapping the event, she listed one of the major takeaways as being: “It’s time to start thinking like a businessperson.” While some may believe that the best way to “think like a businessperson” is to close up ranks, focus solely on market share, and fight off competitors who could infringe upon potential patients, that sort of perspective misses the forest for the trees. According to Andrus, one attendee suggested that in order to be successful, PTs should “stop thinking of...ancillary health and wellness providers as competitors or usurpers, and start thinking of them as colleagues and potential referral sources. In other words, if PTs want to play in this game, they’ve got to play smart—and they’ve got to play nice.”

It pays to be a team player.

Speaking of playing nice, Graham Session speakers also discussed the consequences of clinging to the word “autonomy”—because it “doesn’t mean what [most people in the profession] want it to mean.” While PTs “intentions were good—to encourage and allow PTs to claim total ownership of their profession...other players in the medical community have misinterpreted this term to mean that PTs ‘don’t play well with others.’” Apparently, this has resulted in “other providers [being] a bit standoffish toward physical therapists.” Thus, “by continuing to emphasize autonomy in their vision for the future of the profession, PTs will only perpetuate the misconception that they refuse to collaborate with—or simply do not need—anyone else.” And that’s certainly not the image PTs want to project—especially not now, when collaboration is the new name of the healthcare game. “In the interest of providing their patients with the highest level of care—and, considering the expected transition to episodic-based payment models, in the interest of merely staying in business—PTs must project an aura of willingness to partner with other professionals,” Andrus explained.

Differentiation has its place, too.

Expertise matters.

Now, no one is suggesting that you give up your individuality or your independence to become dependent upon other providers. Keep your confidence in your abilities to provide the very best care for your patients. After all, there’s a reason early PT intervention produces incredible results for people suffering from musculoskeletal injuries. And to be successful in any industry, you must be able to differentiate your services—to identify what sets you apart. With the increasing emphasis on collaboration and value in health care, one way you can do this is by using your expertise to ensure that every patient you see achieves the best possible treatment outcome. Sometimes that means providing treatment yourself; other times it means sending that patient to another provider—someone who is better able to provide the care that patient needs.

Referring just might generate new patients.

There’s no room for ego here—and this is especially important when the patient is seeking out your services first (à la direct access.) These situations represent a perfect opportunity for therapists to demonstrate not only their competency as clinicians, but also their ability to serve as primary care providers who have the expertise necessary to oversee the successful coordination of patient care—even if that success doesn’t come as a direct result of that PT’s services. This type of cooperation also offers the added bonus of establishing connections with other providers, which could lead to reciprocal referrals when those providers see patients who could benefit from your exceptional physical therapy services.

You’ve heard the aphorism, "a rising tide lifts all boats,” right? Well, it applies here, too. By elevating the status of the physical therapy industry as a whole—though a concerted effort to positively represent the profession—everyone benefits. And there’s a lot to benefit from at this particular point in healthcare history.

Still not convinced that cooperation—not competition—is the way to proceed? Check out this easy-to-scan chart that compares the effects of each:

When PTs see other providers—including therapists—solely as competitors, they:

When PTs embrace a team-oriented, patient-centered philosophy of care, they:

Isolate themselves from the rest of the healthcare ecosystem.

Demonstrate a strong sense of confidence in their skills, abilities, and value.

Lose out on opportunities to build referral relationships.

Use “what’s best for the patient” as their decision-making North Star.

Put patients at risk of achieving sub-optimal outcomes.

Don’t hesitate to refer a patient to another provider when appropriate.

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