Becoming Relevant

hands grabbing gears

The behaviors and actions that build strong business relationships

By Sam Huey, PT, DPT

Physical therapists have the opportunity to be the most relevant health care providers to the patients they serve.

Our profession has a unique mix of professionalism, knowledge, empathy, and personal engagement that does not exist in other health care settings. What does it mean for one person to be relevant to another? Why does this matter for a private practice?

Webster’s Dictionary defines relevant as “having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand.” While this is accurate, it feels a little stiff for this discussion. Let’s focus on the idea that the needs of our customers (patients, referral sources, etc.) are not static, but are in a constant state of change. One way to determine what the needs of that customer are at that particular point in time is by strengthening our relationships with them. Consider how impactful it would be if all of your staff regularly demonstrated the following behaviors in order to create deeper connections with your customers.

BE POSITIVE

This sounds simple, but there is more here than coming to work with a smile on your face every day. Positivity in a workplace is contagious, as is negativity. In a stressful world, we may be the only positive interaction that a patient has all day. Think about all the touch points and opportunities to exude positivity on our patients.

When a patient walks into your clinic, the first interaction they have is likely with the person at the front desk. If this first interaction is positive, I think anyone who has been practicing for more than a couple years recognizes that their job as a clinician just got easier. However, if they are greeted in an unfriendly manner, feel forced to fill out tedious paperwork, and generally not made to feel welcome (all while they are likely in pain!), we are now fighting an uphill battle to win this patient over.

Next, the therapist brings the patient into the exam room. Greeting the patient by name with a smile (even with a mask!) is vital. Once in the room, this is the patient’s time. You are there to listen, offer advice and provide hope for the patient. They may have already been told how bad their back is by a physician or done some internet research that has them overly anxious about their condition, so this is your chance to intervene and flip the narrative from one of fear and despair to one of optimism and hope.

Interactions between staff members and even other patients can influence the patient’s perception of their experience. Asking all staff members to greet any patient they pass in the hall or are nearby in the gym can create a welcoming and homey feel in your clinic. The manner in which staff interact with each other in front of patients also comes into play here. If staff members are having a good time at work while remaining professional, this allows the patient who is in pain and nervous about physical therapy to settle in a bit.

The patient must end each visit on a positive note. We ask all of our therapists to discuss our plan for their next visit(s) and thank the patient for coming in. Even if there are rough patches during the session due to pain, emotions or frustration, ending with a positive note will often times negate this part of the experience and encourage the patient to stay the course!

BE PRESENT

In a world of increasing technology and other distractions, this one is probably more important than ever. When you are with the patient, it is their time with you. While there may be times when you jot notes on your computer or a piece of paper, in most cases, there is no email or text message that cannot wait until that patient’s time is done.

Think how it makes you feel when someone you are speaking with pulls their eyes away from yours, even for three seconds, to check their phone. I promise your patients notice and remember these behaviors, and it probably makes them feel like they are the second most important person in the room.

Now, think of the last time you had a health care provider spend 30-60 minutes with you. Uninterrupted. No distractions. Just you and the provider working through the issue at hand and figuring out how to problem solve it together. My guess is that this has never happened to you. What an amazing opportunity we have as physical therapists to have this experience with all of our patients! I promise your patients notice and remember these behaviors, and it probably makes them feel like they are the most important person in the room.

BE AVAILABLE

At first glance, this may feel like it is the same behavior as “Be Present.” However, being available goes beyond your time with that patient in the clinic.

Be flexible with patient’s schedules so that your services are accessible. If they can’t get to you, you can’t get to them!

Offer your email to patients so they can reach out to you with questions during or after care. This will typically produce two types of emails.

  • a. Past patient seeking guidance on a new issue: This is a free touch point and a great indicator that you are relevant to them! They understood your knowledge base and cared enough to seek your opinion.
  • b. Just checking in: These are fun to receive, and they usually include things like pictures of their kids Halloween costumes or trash talk about your favorite football team losing on Sunday. Regardless of why they emailed, this is also a free touch point and another indicator that you are relevant to them!

At the patient’s final visit, extend an invitation to return to therapy if the problem returns or if they have another issue come up. Talk to them about direct access. Let them know what your skill set includes and that you would be honored to help them or their family members in the future. Thank them one final time for choosing your clinic and leave them with a smile.

BE RELEVANT

If you are able to demonstrate the three behaviors above on a daily basis, being relevant comes naturally. How do you know if you are relevant in a patient’s life? To answer this question, we must switch our focus from our behaviors to those of our patients. Below are a few examples, though there are certainly others.

  • Does the patient think highly enough of the care and attention you’ve given them to refer family, friends and neighbors?
  • Do they come back for care in the future (with or without a physician referral)?
  • Do they call or email you with questions first, or do they go directly to another provider?
  • Do they stop in to your clinic just to say “hello” after their course of care is complete?
  • Did they call or email during the peak of COVID-19 to see how YOU were doing?
  • Do they greet you at the grocery store?

WHY DOES RELEVANCE MATTER FOR YOUR PRACTICE?

To put it simply, being relevant to your patients and community can increase your revenue and expand your circle of influence. Though this list is not all inclusive, clinics that master these behaviors can hope to see changes in the following metrics:

  • Higher arrival rates – Do patients value your time and expertise enough to regularly show up to their appointments?
  • Higher net promotor scores – How many patients would recommend your services to someone else?
  • Higher direct access rate – How many patients recognize our skill set and understand their insurance well enough to come to therapy without a referral?

Additionally, being relevant to your customers allows you to keep a pulse on the needs of the community. Patients and referral sources are more likely to reach out to you with questions about services they are seeking. If you offer the service already, great! If not, consider this a free data point in a survey of community needs and look into it further.

Finally, I believe that the best “marketing” time occurs when we are one-on-one with our patient, listening to their challenges and successes while offering professional and personal insight. Providing empathy, listening, and sharing in the human experience while someone is in pain or distress can create a lifelong patient and promotor, and that is becoming relevant. 

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References:

1Michelli J. The new gold standard: 5 leadership principles for creating a legendary customer experience courtesy of The Ritz Carlton Hotel Company. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2008.


Sam Huey

Sam Huey, PT, DPT, serves as Director of Professional Development and Clinic Manager for Rock Valley Physical Therapy in Iowa. He can be reached at sam.huey@rockvalleypt.com.