Physical therapy is a hands-on profession. And I don’t mean that solely in the literal sense. Yes, the treatment we provide is distinctively hands-on, but so is our approach to problem-solving. Over the years, the PT community has faced a lot of challenges: market consolidation, dwindling reimbursements, restrictions to the type and quantity of care we can provide. And we’ve tackled those challenges head-on. But a couple of weeks ago, as I sat in the conference room where the 2018 Graham Sessions took place, I—along with many of my fellow attendees—realized that there is one challenge we’ve been tiptoeing around for decades. And as all PTs know, when a problem is left untreated for a long period of time, it becomes a bigger—and much more complex—problem. I’m talking about the lack of diversity in physical therapy.
During perhaps one of the most memorable discussions I’ve been part of over the course of my four-year tenure as a Graham Sessions participant, we came to some difficult realizations about not only our industry, but also ourselves. Specifically, we recognized that, whether or not we are aware of it, we are all influenced by our individual biases. These biases impact every single judgment, decision, and action—every single minute of every single day. And those hidden preferences and predispositions—along with any number of other environmental factors—have led to a pretty hard truth: 80% of physical therapists are white.
Now, while this particular session focused mainly on the unbalanced racial distribution of physical therapists in comparison to society as a whole, I believe it’s worth pointing out that this is only one facet of a much larger problem. After all, diversity encompasses much more than race: it also includes things like gender, sexual orientation, and religion—not to mention the intangible elements of cognitive diversity (e.g., education, social background, and personality type). But regardless of which diversity factor we’re talking about, the problem is the same: we are inherently biased toward people with certain characteristics and attributes, and often, those characteristics and attributes mirror our own.
But, as one speaker pointed out, the solution to this problem is not, in her words, “colorblindness.” In other words, we cannot simply ignore our biases or pretend they don’t exist. Instead, we must recognize and own them, because that’s the only way we can effectively navigate them. Furthermore, we must look at diversity as more than just a hiring issue, because as another attendee noted, the pool of candidates for any given position often isn’t diverse. And that speaks to a much more deeply rooted issue, one that requires us to examine what is happening at the educational level—and beyond.
So, what are the barriers—socially, economically, or even geographically—that are keeping some would-be physical therapy students from pursuing a career in our field? Is the crippling student loan debt—and seemingly incommensurate earning potential (at least compared to other, more financially lucrative healthcare disciplines)—turning certain segments of the student population away from PT? Or, are some young people less likely to be exposed to physical therapy because those in their immediate personal networks—their friends and family members—are less likely to seek care from a physical therapist?
When you consider all of this from the patient perspective, it really comes full circle. After all, it’s logical to assume that some patients may not feel comfortable seeking care from someone who doesn’t look like them—or who doesn’t align with their own cultural values. I think this concern is especially relevant in physical therapy, as successful treatment hinges on the formation of strong patient-provider relationships that help carry patients through their entire course of care—thus allowing them to achieve the best possible results. Because at the end of the day, we are treating more than muscles, joints, and ligaments; we are treating human beings. And as such, we must account for all the things that make us human—including our individual biases.
Our mission as physical therapists—as defined by the APTA vision statement—is to transform society. And while I—and others in the industry—have talked a lot about the longstanding physical therapy branding problem and how it’s preventing us from reaching all members of the population who could benefit from our care, I now realize that assessment is shortsighted. Yes, the physical therapy profession still needs a more cohesive brand—but it also needs a more inclusive composition. After all, as another speaker so astutely observed, “How can we transform society when our profession doesn’t look like society?” And perhaps I am biased, but I couldn’t agree more.
Curious as to what else we discussed at this year’s Graham Sessions? Be sure to check out my full recap here. Want to share your own perspective on the PT diversity issue? Leave a comment below. I’d love to keep the conversation going.
About the Author
Heidi Jannenga PT, DPT, ATC/L is the president and co-founder of WebPT, the leading practice management solution for physical, occupational, and speech therapists. Heidi leads WebPT’s product vision, company culture, and branding efforts, while advocating for the physical therapy profession on a national scale. She co-founded WebPT after recognizing the need for a more sophisticated industry-specific EMR platform and has since guided the company through exponential growth, while garnering national recognition. Heidi brings with her more than 15 years of experience as a physical therapist and multi-clinic site director as well as a passion for healthcare innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership.
An active member of the sports and private practice sections of the APTA, Heidi advocates for independent rehab therapy businesses, speaks as a subject-matter expert at industry conferences and events, and participates in local and national technology, entrepreneurship, and women-in-leadership seminars. In 2014, Heidi was appointed to the PT-PAC Board of Trustees. She also serves as a mentor to physical therapy students and local entrepreneurs and leverages her platform to promote the importance of diversity, company culture, and overall business acumen for private practice rehab therapy professionals.
Heidi was a collegiate basketball player at the University of California, Davis, and remains a lifelong fan of the Aggies. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and exercise physiology, went on to earn her master’s degree in physical therapy at the Institute of Physical Therapy in St. Augustine, Florida, and obtained her doctorate of physical therapy through Evidence in Motion. When she’s not enjoying time with her daughter Ava, Heidi is perfecting her Spanish, practicing yoga, or hiking one of her favorite Phoenix trails.