Blog Post

What Your Patients Think They Know About PT—and How It's Hurting Them

Without access to an expert like you, physical therapy patients may find themselves in over their heads when they turn to the Internet.

Erica McDermott
5 min read
January 24, 2018
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Thanks to the Internet, we have more information at our fingertips than ever before. Want to know how the Queen of England takes her tea? A quick Google search will tell you that she prefers milk, but no sugar. Can’t remember the capital of Turkey? It’s Ankara. Debating with your coworker about the merits of therapy dogs? There are pages upon pages of information on the topic. Whatever your question, you can find the answer—well, at least an answer—on the Internet. While most people would argue that we’re lucky to have so much information immediately available to us, there are situations in which access to this much information—from so many varied sources—can be more than a little confusing, if not completely overwhelming.

Think about it from your patients’ perspective. Without a solid understanding of physiology, anatomy, and biology—or access to an expert resource (cough: you)—therapy patients may very well find themselves in over their heads when they turn to the interwebs for clinical information. This can lead to all sorts of problems. For example, patients may attempt dangerous DIY-versions of therapy, push back on recommended courses of care because of unsubstantiated articles they read online, or supplement their at-home exercise programs with their own mish-mash of wonky stretches. In some cases, this type of patient engagement can help. After all, you definitely want patients to be actively involved in their care. In others, however, it may very well cause harm—or at least hinder the patient’s progress. So, what’s a conscientious provider to do? Read on to learn what your patients think they know about PT—and how you can keep it from hurting them.

1. If it’s online, it’s true.

Unfortunately, this one isn’t limited to physical therapy patients. There are many individuals who believe that anything they find online is cold, hard truth. It’s not—and without proper source-vetting, believing everything one reads can be problematic, especially when it comes to choosing strategies for managing one’s health. Now, that’s not to say that a patient won’t find super-valuable online content that can help him or her select a great PT—or learn how to, say, maintain proper posture to prevent a future injury. But, there’s also a chance that what your patients are perusing online will lead to some unintended consequences.

Teach your patients to be critical readers.

That’s where you come in. While it’s never a good idea to steer patients away from doing their own research, you do want to emphasize the importance of thoughtfully evaluating anything they find online. When in doubt, they should bring the information to a trusted neuromusculoskeletal expert—like you—so you can discuss it and develop a plan of action together. Just remember, you want your patients to remain actively involved in their care—so it’s important to listen to their input. According to Jeffrey A. Alexander, Ph.D., the lead author of the study referenced in this article, “The patient takes a cue from what the doctor does. If the doctor conveys an all-knowing ‘I make the decisions’ attitude, the patient will revert to a passive role.”

2. They can go it alone.

Some patients with neuromusculoskeletal conditions may believe that they can treat themselves without the help of an expert physical therapist—or even design their own home exercise programs to substitute the ones you have (or would have) provided. Now, depending on the patient and his or her condition, it’s possible that the patient may experience relief without skilled therapy intervention. But, in most cases, that’s not a wise—or safe—approach, especially given the vast knowledge and experience that a physical therapist has to offer. But, if your patients don’t know you’re a pro, they may be more likely to think they can go it alone—or seek a different type of care altogether.

Establish yourself as a trusted expert.

This is why it's so important to continually educate your patients on best practices, explain the clinical reasoning behind your techniques and assigned home exercise programs, and reiterate the importance of maintaining open communication. In other words, you have to build trust with your patients—and establish yourself as the expert you are—so they look to you (rather than Google or another provider) to guide their care journeys. To effectively build that level of trust with your patients, you’ll need to establish a process for consistently touching base between sessions to check in on your patients’ progress and celebrate milestones. While small clinics may be able handle this type of outreach manually, larger ones—or those that are growing—may need to take advantage of patient engagement software to help ensure patients don’t fall through the cracks.

3. It’s not a crucial part of their recovery process.

We’ve been talking about the PT perception problem for a while now, and the industry has made some progress on this front. But, as WebPT president Heidi Jannenga, PT, DPT, ATC/L, pointed out in this Founder Letter, “only 9.58% of all patients who could benefit from seeing a physical therapist ever do (analysis courtesy of Strive Labs, based on data from this source and this one). That means 90.42% of those patients are missing out on the extremely valuable care that we are uniquely able to provide.” In other words, many patients may not realize that physical therapy could be an invaluable part of their recovery process—or that they may be able to see a PT without a referral. Instead, they’re turning to more widely marketed options such as chiropractic care, injections, and even surgery. And, in many cases, those interventions simply aren’t as effective as first-line physical therapy.

Use data to prove the value of PT.

We all know that physical therapy can produce significantly better outcomes for patients with neuromusculoskeletal conditions—at a significantly lower cost point than many more invasive treatment protocols. However, anecdotal evidence simply isn’t going to cut it any longer. Today, everyone—from payers to patients—is looking for data. Thus, it’s up to all PTs to implement an outcomes tracking protocol and use that data to not only improve patient care, but also prove the value of that care. And data’s useful for current patients, too. In fact, you can use your amassed data—as well as data from the industry at-large—to validate the techniques you use and the exercises you prescribe. And that’s something your patients probably won’t be able to find online.

There you have it: what your patients think they know about PT—and how you can keep it from hurting them. How do you keep your patients engaged in their care—and off the interwebs? Tell us what works for you—and what doesn’t—in the comment section below.


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