Not too long ago, Paul Gough, BSC (HONS), MCSP, RP, HPC, published this PPS Impact Magazine article, in which he argued that PTs should never sell themselves. Instead, he recommends we focus our conversations with patients on patients—specifically, “the destination that they want to get to” (i.e., the achievement of their functional goals). While I agree with the sentiment of Gough’s article—providers shouldn’t spend precious time with patients rattling off a list of their awards and accolades, because nobody wants to sit through that—I believe he may be conflating selling with, well, bragging.
In today’s healthcare environment—especially in the US (for reference, Gough practices in the UK)—providers of all disciplines must learn to effectively communicate the value of the services they provide to their patients, payers, and peers in other healthcare disciplines. It’s the only way to ensure that everyone in the healthcare ecosystem knows what we do—and how what we do benefits each of them. And that is pretty much the definition of sales. Unfortunately, the concept of selling has gotten a bad rap, which is why many physical therapists shy away from it. But, for the purposes of this argument, I’m not talking about the crude form of sales: convincing people to buy something they don’t need. I’m talking about simply learning to identify and communicate the merit of your work to spark genuine interest. I’m talking about sharing your value through storytelling—for example, by highlighting a patient’s remarkable progress and the role you played in it.
Embrace the sale.
You’ve probably heard—read?—this before in my past articles and blog posts, but only about 10% of patients who could benefit from seeing a physical therapist ever do. That means, as it stands, we’re only serving a tiny fraction of the population, mostly because the rest of the population doesn’t understand what we do. Considering that most of us got into this profession to help people, that statistic is extremely hard to swallow; we’re letting a whole lot of potential patients down. Add in the fact that many private physical therapy practices are struggling to stay afloat with increasing regulations and decreasing payments, and you’ll realize how maddening it is that we’re leaving 90% of our market share untapped. So, what’s the answer? Embrace sales—but do it with integrity. Here’s how:
1. Own your role.
Gough is totally correct in that no one wants to hear a healthcare provider—or anyone for that matter—hold a conversation about himself or herself. Every conversation with a patient—current or prospective—should focus on that patient, specifically. It should be about understanding the patient’s wants and needs and connecting the dots as to how you can use your expertise, approach, and experience to help. Contrary to the title of Gough’s piece, though, I believe it is about you—you and your patients. It’s a partnership. If we take ourselves out of the equation, we’ll be right back to where we’ve been: providing ancillary care at the bequest of primary care physicians (one of the main reasons why patients see us as providers of add-on services and payers believe we’re costs to be managed instead of valuable members of the patient’s healthcare team). Instead, it’s high-time we put ourselves squarely back in the healthcare equation, because we are uniquely equipped to help patients with neuromusculoskeletal conditions—but that can’t happen unless we not only own our value, but also start communicating it effectively.
Clinic owners, be sure to bake this type of mentality into your company culture. It’s imperative that everyone on your staff—from front office staff members to clinicians—understand the value your organization provides and is comfortable talking about it.
2. Discover your value.
Before you can share your value with the world, you’ve got to discover it—and that starts with getting to know your strengths as well as your weaknesses. For example, are you exceptional at treating patients post-total knee replacement surgery—and do you have the outcomes data to prove it? Do you love working with senior citizens—or have knack for keeping high-school students engaged in their care? In other words, identify your ideal patient, because that’s probably the person to whom you’ll be able to provide the most value. That doesn’t mean you have to treat that patient population exclusively, but you may want to target your marketing campaigns to reach more of those patients who fit your ideal. On the flip side, you’ll also want to know who isn’t your ideal patient. After all, treating patients you know you’re not well-equipped to serve could end up hurting those patients—and your reputation. Instead, play the long game by building strong relationships with other providers in your area (PTs and non-PTs). That way, you can leverage each other’s expertise to provide the very best care to every patient. And if you do want to expand your services to reach more patients who you don’t yet feel confident treating, consider bulking up your CEU classes in that area—or partnering with another provider who has the experience you lack.
Just don’t let your desire to boost revenue interfere with your clinical judgment about what’s best for your patients, practice, and profession. That’s where selling becomes problematic—and just plain icky.
3. Learn what your patients want.
Before you can effectively communicate your value in a way that resonates with your patients, you first must understand what they value. And the best way to do that is to ask. Start with your current patients—and ask them questions to better understand:
- their motivation for seeking care,
- their fears surrounding therapy, and
- their definition of a successful outcome.
Then, you can refer back to what you learned throughout the course of care to ensure you’re continually meeting their needs, thereby reinforcing your value, improving patient engagement, and reducing patient dropout.
4. Tailor your message.
Every patient will have unique answers to your questions, but you should eventually be able to identify trends that you can use to tailor your message to prospective patients during their first interaction with your clinic (like when they are exploring your website or calling to book an initial evaluation). For example, if your patients value having a close relationship with their therapist—one that includes regular progress checks outside of the clinic—you could point to your interactive HEP, which features a secure messaging platform that will enable patients to speak with their therapists between sessions, share progress updates, ask questions, and provide feedback regarding the difficulty of their home exercises (so PTs can adjust programs in near real-time instead of waiting until the patient’s next visit). Surprise—that’s selling! It’s merely selling done really well, by sharing your value.
5. Don’t push.
Part of being confident in your own value is knowing when to walk away. If your audience finds value in what you have to offer, great; it’s a good fit. If not, don’t sweat it. We all know that not every patient, payer, or referral source is going to be right for every healthcare provider. You can either let it be, or—if you think there’s still an opportunity there—come back to the table at a later time when you’ve better-tuned your value proposition (or refined your delivery). Pushing someone into using your services is not going to be good for that person—or for your business reputation—especially if you don’t have the expertise necessary to ensure that person can walk away with a positive outcome and experience. Instead, expand your network to include other physical therapists and providers in other disciplines so you can easily refer patients who aren’t right for you. That way, every patient receives the best possible care from the best suited provider—and we simultaneously elevate the entire profession.
Remember that we’re not a commodity.
While the logic of Gough’s statement that the “decision to choose a physical therapist or particular clinic is based on the patient’s perception of whether or not you can get them to their final destination” checks out, I’m not sure that his airline passenger metaphor does—at least not for PT patients. And that’s because—in my experience—PT patients expect a great experience on their way to reaching their functional goals. Plus, their engagement level and relationship with their provider directly impact their outcomes. Airline passengers don’t share any of those traits. In fact, air travel has become a commodity, with the perceived value for most passengers being about price and convenience. Sure, there’s a general baseline expectation regarding quality (namely, that the plane arrives to its final destination safely), but most of us would swiftly trade in our favorite airline if a competitor offered a flight itinerary that was less expensive and/or had fewer stops. (Southwest Airlines may be an exception given that airline’s emphasis on delivering an exceptional experience as part of its value proposition.)
That’s not the case for physical therapy patients. For starters, the discussion about quality of care extends beyond a cut-and-dried point-A-to-point-B journey. Plus, patients factor in more than price and convenience when choosing their healthcare providers; specifically, they consider your brand, your ability to build a relationship with them and other healthcare providers, and the quality of care you are able to provide based on your experience and expertise. And if you don’t know your value—and aren’t comfortable selling it—how can your patients make an informed decision to not only choose you as a provider, but also remain with you throughout the course of care?
To learn more about the art of selling yourself—including how to discover your value in the five value categories that matter most to patients—check out this webinar I recently hosted with Tannus Quatre, PT, MBA.
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.