I recently participated in a small group discussion about the direction physical therapy was heading in the current health care market. As a group we brainstormed answers to a variety of questions, including ways to broaden our appeal to prospective patients. As we talked I realized that we were all coming from this as insiders. Meaning we all understood what physical therapy was, what value we provided to our patients and what benefit we could provide to different groups.
All of us were experienced therapists who were enthusiastic about what we did and enjoyed the opportunity to provide our patients with a positive experience. Most of us were able to detail successful outcomes and times where we were able to turn a negative into a positive situation for a patient. I think those were some of our most valued experiences. We could all name patients who sent us their friends and family members and who returned with their own issues. Again this type of community was something we treasured and worked hard to develop.
What struck me though was that we were kind of preaching to the choir. These patients understood the value of physical therapy. The clinicians of our group possessed skill sets that restored function and the ability to move to their patients, almost in a way, giving them their life back. We knew what physical therapy could do.
But what about the people who don’t understand what physical therapy is or why a visit to a PT could benefit them. Who think well of course I can’t walk that far any more, or climb all those stairs or carry my grandchild or my groceries, or take up running or swimming or bowling…I’m not as young as I used to be. Or who sit 8 hours at a desk, sit behind the wheel for another two and wonder why their back or shoulders hurt, but just accept it as a part of aging.
Or my brother in law who loves to ski, hike and ride his bicycle who had plantar fasciitis for a year and a stiff and occasionally swollen ankle, and whose doctor told him “well at 55 what do you expect”. If he didn’t have a sister in law who was a PT and he were to decide that, “yeah, I guess I should slow down and not do all of these things any more because maybe I will get worse” is he better off sitting around more? And in 10 years will he move any better? Not likely.
Sure he can do his job, and take care of his family and he has other hobbies, but should his world get smaller because he doesn’t know that he has a choice? That he could see a PT for an assessment of his current ability to move, and get some direction about how to take care of himself. That he could come back again in a few months or a year, just like he goes to see his dentist or doctor, so that we can screen him again. That maybe the stiff ankle he has is something he can treat now so that 10 years from now he can teach his son to ski.
What if we could teach people that the real value of physical therapy isn’t just treating them when they have an injury, but in screening them for a problem before they develop an injury? Or that having trouble getting out of a chair, or up from the ground, or climbing a step isn’t necessarily permanent or a sign of age, but rather that their body just needs to be reminded how to do it?
Physical therapists understand how the body moves. That’s what we were trained in. But like the way we typically practice medicine in our country, we tend to see people only when they have a problem. I think our greatest opportunity is in seeing those who could move better, or who are primed for an injury because they don’t move well, BEFORE they have a problem.