Research has shown that early treatment by a physical therapist is associated with quicker healing times, reduced risk of health care utilization and reduced overall health care costs. Even with the results of this research, patients continually wait to seek out physical therapy services. Most of the time when the patient walks through your door, they have had back pain for 6 months, have had hip pain for a year, sprained their ankle 2-3 weeks ago, or just had surgery (which may have been unnecessary if they had sought out early treatment).
As a physical therapist, our job in returning a patient back to a pain-free lifestyle is easier when we have access to the patient as soon as the injury occurs. Patients always want to know how quickly we can get them feeling better. We have to continually remind them how long they have been in pain. This stands especially true for post-operative patients. When a patient is in pain for a long period of time, they lose range of motion in their joints, they start using compensatory patterns during their daily activities and their muscles can atrophy. If we make it easier for a patient to seek out physical therapy treatment earlier, we can increase our efficiency as physical therapists and decrease the time period it takes to rehabilitate many injuries.
Let’s take a look at a few reasons why patients wait so long to receive physical therapy treatment:
- Belief that Physical Therapy is for “serious injuries” – Most patients do not understand that they can receive physical therapy for a minor ache or pain or even for preventative services. They ignore the signs of pain assuming that it is “not bad enough” to see a doctor and wait until it is worse to seek out medical services.
- Access to physical therapy – As of now patients still believe that they need to see a medical doctor first who then recommends them to see a physical therapist. Although physical therapists have direct access in all 50 states, patients are not well educated on this benefit. In addition, doctors commonly offer patients pain medication which patients will try first before seeking physical therapy services.
- Don’t know how to find a physical therapy clinic – Most patients don’t know where to look to find physical therapy or how to tell which clinic is best for them. Therefore, they wait until they see the doctor and receive a recommendation from the doctor. In the past, doctors have handed out a paper referral list which gives the patients a few names to start with, but those lists may be outdated and still requires a patient to do some more research on their own.
- Don’t know which clinic is best for their needs – Even after a patient receives a list from the doctor, they still have to figure out which clinic takes their insurance, which clinic is in close enough proximity to them and which clinic has available appointment times that fit with their schedule.
- Need to pick up the phone and call – We are in a generation where a phone call is actually a limiting factor. Many patients don’t have the time or patience to pick up the phone and call. Whether they are busy at work, sitting on a bus commuting or have loud children at home, phone calls are not the most efficient way of booking appointments now.
- Need to pay a copay or deductible – Patients can be turned off when they have to pay for services. They may have just had a costly doctor visit, paid for pain medication, and missed valuable work time to go to the medical doctor, however, if they sought out physical therapy services first, they would have saved money in the long run.
Once a patient has overcome all of these barriers, time has already added up and an injury that may have been healed in a few sessions now requires more attention and physical therapy sessions to resolve. At the end of the day, there needs to be more patient-friendly methods to finding local PTs and ensuring that they are the right person for the job.
So, as a PT, how can you help? Ensuring you have a steady stream of the right people coming through your front door will improve your own efficiency and revenue – plus better the health of your own community.
Here are a few ways you can take part in breaking down patient barriers to physical therapy:
- Market in your community! Making your presence and purpose known in your city can be a huge help to potential patients. Take part in or sponsor local events like a city run to get your name out there, educate the market on direct access to PT, show off your skills and build relationships with the community. This way you are already top of mind when someone begins to think of PT.
- Provide your referring physicians additional, updated information they can pass along to their patients. As we mentioned above, the PT information passed from a primary care physician tends to be brief and outdated. Providing additional info can make your clinic stand out and make the patients decision a little easier.
- Have a system in place that offers potential patients easy access to your care right at their fingertips. Leveraging an app such as BetterAccess, allows patients to find physical therapy clinics based on quality, insurance, location and appointment availability and schedule a physical therapy appointment right from their computer or phone. No referral or middleman needed.
Wouldn’t it be nice to see that chronic back pain patient earlier? Wouldn’t it be nice to avoid that unnecessary surgery? Wouldn’t it be nice to feel more efficient with getting your patients back to a pain-free lifestyle?
Let’s continue to welcome technological changes that bring efficiency into our lives and our patient’s lives and get more patients BETTER!