Historically, one of the main barriers between injured patients and proper PT services was the necessity of a doctor’s referral prior to any appointments. This extra step often led patients not to put forth the effort to seek treatment from a qualified PT. Indeed, each year, over 100 million Americans suffer from wellness and mobility impairments, and yet only 10 million actually make their way to a physical therapy clinic. With the implementation of direct access, however, the process is set to get streamlined. By placing the power directly into the hands of consumers and clinicians, direct access will provide a new avenue through which you will be able to reach previously unreachable patients.
Put simply, direct access grants the patient the ability to “refer themselves” to their desired PT, who may then provide evaluation and treatment without the sign-off of a physician. This may seem like a small deviation from the standard medical referral model, but in actuality, it could potentially have a profound effect on the PT industry. With patients now beginning to research and select their preferred PT’s, clinics are in the novel position of being able to leverage direct to consumer marketing, allowing them to rapidly expand their client bases. Direct access also eliminates much of the bureaucratic red tape that the previous referral system was built upon. Some key benefits of this reform are as follows:
- It eliminates the burden of extraneous visits to physicians. The referral requirement can cause delays and denials of services provided by physical therapists. These delays in care result in higher costs, decreased functional outcomes, and frustration to patients, none of which are good for your clinic!
- It promotes more efficient treatment by eliminating sometimes unnecessary and frequently expensive diagnostic testing.
- It leads both to a better treatment experience and outcome for the client. Patients who visited a physical therapist directly for outpatient care (27%) had fewer visits and lower overall costs on average than those who were referred by a physician, while maintaining continuity of care within the overall medical system and showing no difference in health care use in the 60 days after the physical therapy episode. Happy patients make for motivated patients. Motivated patients make for happy PT practices!
It is clear that direct access is a great development for the physical therapy industry, but in order for your clinic to reap the full benefits of this new system, you must properly leverage the power you have been granted by establishing a new relationship with physicians. By fostering reciprocal referral relationships with local doctors, you will be in the best position to ensure consistent, successful treatment for your clients, which will in turn ensure that those clients remain loyal to your clinic.
The last major piece of the direct access puzzle is shifting the marketing mindset of your clinic from a strictly physician-based outlook to a more diversified, consumer-driven one. You should instruct staff to be more engaged with the patients’ feedback and to recognize potential opportunities for the acquisition of additional clients via current client relationships. Additionally, you should make your clinic known not just as a healthcare provider, but as a community member. You should contribute to local charities and provide event sponsorships, especially towards those events that have many potential clients as participants (Turkey Trots are always a good start!). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you must make sure that patients are aware of the availability of direct access, as it is a relatively new development. All clinic literature, signage, newsletters etc. should make it clear that direct access is now an option, as well as highlighting the benefits of this alternate system. You should ensure patients that direct access is not some “premium” costlier plan; in fact, over 90 percent of insurance companies provide reimbursements for direct access care. This information should be found across all marketing channels; patients will only take advantage of direct access if they are convinced it’s truly in their best interest.
Exact direct access laws vary state-by-state, and a general breakdown of these differences can be found in this PDF from the American Physical Therapy Association. Despite these minor variations in implementation, however, the core mission of direct access remains the same nationwide: to empower patients and clinics and promote more efficient, effective treatment. We are at the dawn of a new era in consumer-driven healthcare, and clinics who capitalize on this evolution will soon dwarf those who choose to remain in the procedural stone age.