This was my first year attending WebPT’s Ascend conference, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. A business conference? For PTs? It was exciting and intriguing. I also received carte blanche to write an entire blog post around my own experiences at the conference, which is an absolute dream come true! And, as a non-traditional, non-practicing physical therapist, I knew my experience would be very different from others’.

So, I packed my bags and braced myself for the Phoenix heat (but it’s a dry heat!), excitedly welcoming whatever experiences the conference might bring.

Here are some of the things I learned:

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Smaller conferences lead to more meaningful connections.

As someone who falls pretty much squarely in the middle of the introvert-to-extrovert scale, I love being around people––but find that huge crowds can make me feel a bit drained. So, as excited as I was, I was also anticipating a tiring weekend of having the same small-talk conversations over and over with tons of different people.

Ascend had around 500 participants, and I legitimately feel like I met a good portion of them! Between moderating the non-clinical career paths table at the Exchange and attending the numerous complimentary happy hours and networking opportunities, I was constantly able to strike up a conversation with someone new––and then see that same person again for a more meaningful follow-up chat. I also met people in the hotel elevators, on the sidewalk outside the event venue, in breakout sessions, and at the food tables. Quite a few felt like true friends by the end of the conference. And, as each night drew to a close, I felt invigorated rather than exhausted. This was truly a first for me, and I’ve been to many conferences over the years.

I wholeheartedly believe in the idea of #BetterTogether, and I’ve always preferred collaboration to siloed work. That’s another reason why Ascend stole my heart. There was a running theme of supporting each other, working together as a profession, partnering with other professions, and embracing new technologies and approaches to patient care. The collaborative and supportive spirit wafting through the air at Ascend was intoxicating.

Ascend is a great place to get non-clinical CEUs.

As someone who no longer treats clinically, but is extremely passionate about the physical therapy profession, I have no intention of letting my PT license lapse—ever. But, I also doubt that I will return to treating in a traditional clinical setting anytime soon.

As a result, my clinical skills are becoming more and more rusty, making hands-on continuing education courses less and less enjoyable for me. Some of the advanced clinical material goes over my head, and I always feel a bit awkward practicing complex techniques when some of the basics escape me at this point!

Until Ascend, I thought that left me pretty much one option to maintain licensure: online continuing education. I have been quite happy with my online con-ed experiences, but again, I’m 50% extrovert! It can be a bit lonely when you work from home, complete all of your continuing education online, and have precious few opportunities to connect with other PTs in person.

Imagine my delight when I realized that there would not only be courses on business, marketing, and operations, but I would also receive CEUs for those courses! I tend to scour through conference agendas each year to see what’s out there, and I never find much that aligns with my own unique physical therapy career path. It was refreshing and inspiring to sit alongside other PTs and learn about topics that directly affect my own daily operations as an online business owner.

Our leaders hear our concerns.

Anyone who knows me is aware that I’m not afraid to speak up about my concerns regarding our profession. I’ve written about burnout and unrealistic productivity expectations, and I’ve expressed my concerns about our poor debt-to-income ratio numerous times. I also feel deeply troubled by the lack of diversity in our field, and am frustrated by the fact that the high-cost barrier to entry precludes many talented people from underserved backgrounds from becoming physical therapists.

During her closing keynote, APTA president Sharon Dunn called upon all of us to fight to change these things, and stressed that the APTA is working to address the problems. It was exactly what I needed to hear—right when I needed to hear it.

Ascend provides a full feed*.

I debated whether to include this as a key takeaway, but let’s face it: everyone wants to know about the food situation at conferences. I grew up in a family where life revolved around planning the next meal, so I was excited to check out the full spread that came with the Ascend ticket! Not only were there two full feeds per day, but there also was ample coffee, tea, soda, and water throughout the day, as well as snack breaks with cookies and ice cream bars. Yes, ice cream bars!  

*In case you’re wondering, Sarah Lyon, MS, OTR/L (of OTPotential) and I shared a hearty laugh when we realized both of our fathers refer to full meals as “full feeds.” We agreed that our dads would be proud of Ascend’s spreads.

EMRs have changed a lot.

The last time I worked in an outpatient clinic was almost four years ago, and we used WebPT. So, I stopped by the main WebPT display to see what had changed in the last three and a half years. I expected some improvements, but I also didn’t know if I’d be able to identify major changes. I can honestly say I was blown away.

First of all, there’s now an embedded HEP feature. My last memories of HEPs were clunky, limited software with uninspired exercises. WebPT’s new HEP is so beautiful and easy to use, I will admit that I was tempted to return to patient care, just to use it!

Also, most of us have seen at least one of the many recent articles that link medical practitioners’ burnout to clunky EMRs. I was able to sit down with WebPT co-founder Heidi Jannenga, PT, DPT, ATC, and she shared some of the ways that documentation has been a forerunning issue for practitioners and software developers alike. WebPT has an entire team of both clinical and non-clinical product managers who are devoted to listening to user feedback and streamlining processes, thus saving providers valuable time during documentation. With a recurring WebPT theme being efficiency, the team has developed improved templates for greater efficiency with SOAP notes and other forms of documentation. Based on the length of time taken to complete evals and daily notes, user interface (UI) improvements are constantly implemented in the software to decrease the burden on clinicians.

WebPT’s recent acquisition of StriveLabs—and subsequent development of WebPT Reach—now enables greater engagement automation and better communication with patients, which also saves time. It has other benefits as well. For example, the software’s built-in Net Promoter Score (NPS) tracking feature measures each patient’s willingness to recommend your practice to others. It’s a simple and effective way to collect patient feedback and identify people who are your practice’s biggest cheerleaders. Then, you can ask those folks to fill out online reviews, make recommendations to friends, and provide testimonials.

There are a lot of opportunities out there for PTs.

Clinical Opportunities

PT is perfectly primed to fight the opioid epidemic, as we learned during the fascinating opening keynote presentation at Ascend. David Elton, Senior VP of Clinical Programs at Optum, shared that when a patient sees a PT or chiropractor as the first line of intervention for pain, the chance of short or long-term use of opiates drops by 90%. There is a huge need for physical therapists in the pain-management space and, while we have traditionally branded ourselves as movement experts, there is a lot of opportunity for us to fight the opioid epidemic. We just need to market ourselves appropriately!

Non-clinical Opportunities

Speaking of marketing, PTs have many opportunities in that realm, too, as I’ll discuss in a moment. As a freelance physical therapy copywriter and champion of all the non-traditional and alternative PTs out there, I can be guilty of having a bit of a one-track mind. I’m fascinated by the different ways that clinicians can act as liaisons between the heathcare community and the product designers and engineers working in healthcare software. Just a few of the areas where WebPT welcomes clinicians onto its team include:

  • Product management,
  • Account management,
  • Customer support/onboarding, and
  • Marketing/content development.

The opportunities don’t stop at WebPT, though. I spoke with nearly every vendor at the event, and the vast majority had a PT or PTA in a non-clinical role. The WebPT marketing team specifically shared that therapists who have experience with social media or other forms of online marketing—and can show strong clinic growth trends resulting from their efforts—would be very valuable to their team.

So, if you’re considering a non-clinical role down the line, don’t be shy about stepping up to help your clinic with marketing today! After all, honing your non-clinical skills starts when you’re still a treating clinician.

I plan to attend Ascend indefinitely.

I cannot say enough about the fun experiences I had at Ascend. From meeting the fantastic marketing team to chatting with the founder and CEO herself, I gained a deeper understanding of why WebPT has been repeatedly voted one of the top places to work in Phoenix. The team is passionate about their work, and they all have a deep understanding of PT and what our profession needs. My favorite part of the conference was meeting the professionals with whom I have been working as a freelance writer, and I eagerly look forward to many future #AscendEvent experiences.

Meredith Castin, PT, DPT, is the founder of The Non-Clinical PT, a career development resource designed to help physical, occupational, and speech therapy professionals leverage their degrees in non-clinical ways.

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