Communication through Conversation
Why you should consider hiring a communications professional.
By James McKay, PT, DPT*
My career in radio started while earning my bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from St. Bonaventure University. I landed a coveted internship at WXRK, the home of Howard Stern, during my senior year. After graduation I wound up as the program director of two radio stations simultaneously on top of hosting my own afternoon drive show in a top 75 market.
I found my way to physical therapy after hearing what a therapist’s day was like, and what physical therapists were able to do for others. Once I got into physical therapy school, I hung up my headphones and hit the books, leaving broadcasting behind forever . . . or so I thought.
While attending a presentation at the American Physical Therapy Association’s NEXT conference during physical therapy school at Marymount University, I was simultaneously intrigued and confused by a presentation that I attended. I loved what I was hearing, but because I was still a student, I didn’t understand everything the presenter was saying. Later that day at happy hour, I ran into the presenter. Over the next half hour and several beers, I realized that I preferred conversations to presentations, and the idea for a podcast was born. Two years and 250+ episodes later, I’m still learning through conversation. My podcast is just like my interaction at that conference—two physical therapists talking about physical therapy, over a beer.
I’m drawn to podcasting as entertainment as well as something that I do professionally because it’s the most basic form of communication, the spoken word. I knew it was the best way for me to learn, and after starting to release interviews that I had done in podcast form I realized that there were a lot of other people out there who liked that format.
The medium allows the sharing of information with the option for the host to ask follow-up questions. I think sometimes we listen to lectures, webinars, read books or articles, and there might be something very simple that isn’t communicated. Without the ability to clarify or ask questions, listeners might get lost in the information or take it out of context. The spoken word with an attentive host can get very complicated information across to the audience in a simple and digestible way.
Starting to sound like a physical therapy subjective exam? That’s another parallel I began to see between communications and physical therapy patient care. Here’s how to have a great interview. Feel free to exchange the word “guest” with the word “patient” to make it directly applicable to your practice.
- Make the guest comfortable.
- Let the guest know that you value their time and are there for them.
- Be quiet and let the guest tell their story.
- If you get to a point where you need more information or clarification, ask the guest to explain what they mean.
- Be quiet and let the guest tell the rest of their story.
You can learn something from an interaction with any clinician, educator, researcher, patient, or student if you’re quiet long enough and you ask the right questions at the right times.
A few years ago I was told that I couldn’t launch a successful podcast as a physical therapy student. That person was proved wrong. People are told that they can’t start a cash-based practice. Physical therapists all over are proving them wrong. Can physical therapy be the difference maker in preventative medicine? “No” is what some people say. But personally, I’m excited for our field to prove the naysayers wrong there as well.
We get there in every one of those situations by being nontraditional. Back to my days in radio, my job was to get people to pay attention, to my station and to my advertisers. Often my budget was low; sometimes it was zero. But I had two choices, complain about it or get creative. I think physical therapists who are setting themselves apart from their colleagues are doing it with creativity. Using both technology and communications, you can leverage the valuable skills you have as a clinician.
Here are my parting words of wisdom for physical therapists: stories, communications, and perseverance.
Stories: This doesn’t mean telling stories about you or your clinic. The stories that I tell for myself or other companies are always about the user. Don’t tell me that you recently got a certification in XYZ. Tell me that you just learned how to lower the chances that my daughter will tear her ACL this soccer season. Don’t tell me that you bought an expensive piece of equipment. Tell me you’ll be able to get my mom walking again after a stroke. Solve my problem. The end. Once PTs start thinking in terms of who they’re talking to, things will start to get easier for them. Physical therapists, for the most part, are good at what they do, which is being a PT. We’re just not great at explaining to other people how we can solve their problem.
Communications: As a profession we love to tell the public, “You need our skills, expertise, and knowledge. We are movement experts!”
What do you say to a patient who tells you that they read a book about physical therapy and is “just going to try it myself”? You reiterate that you’re a professional with skills, expertise, and knowledge, and claim that the patient’s time and money will be better spent with you.
Yet most physical therapists then ignore professional communicators. These people have skills, expertise, and knowledge. They’re communications experts! Starting to sound familiar, isn’t it?
Perseverence: If you’ve tried leveraging communications on your own or with a professional, one more thing to keep in mind is perseverance. You need to use this tool regularly. As a clinician how often do you hear, “I tried physical therapy for a week or for a few sessions, but it didn’t work!” As physical therapists we are often quick to defend our profession, “You only tried it for a few weeks, that’s not enough!” or “Just because you tried physical therapy somewhere and it didn’t work doesn’t mean physical doesn’t work.” The same can be said for communications. You need to use this tool regularly, and stick with it, even if you don’t immediately see a return on investment. Communicating is a long-term effort, not a trick that shows instant results.
When you see physical therapists valuing communications professionals, you see amazing results. But much like physical therapy, communications is an investment that needs to be made regularly and over time to see results. It doesn’t need to break the bank, either. Having a communications consultant, someone to come in and take a look at how things are going from a different perspective, can pay for itself. Wait a second . . . isn’t that the same thing our profession says about our skills as clinicians?! Come to physical therapy a few times a year, even if things don’t necessarily hurt. We can be a big part of preventative medicine. The same applies to communications professionals
Jimmy McKay, PT, DPT, is a physical therapist who has worked in private practice orthopedic and pediatric practices. He is the host of PT Pintcast, an internationally recognized podcast that has been heard in 130 countries more than 750,000 times. The show can be heard on iTunes and Google Play or at PTPintcast.com. You can contact him directly for communications consultations for your practice at Jimmy@PTPintcast.com or at www.JimmyMcKay.Physio.