Marketing PT to the Modern Consumer
How evolving consumer attitudes require shifts in our approach to marketing physical therapy
By Peter Decoteau
The past two decades have seen a steady shift in cultural attitudes about healthcare for individuals and their families, from that of a passive – or at least deferential – mindset to a more proactive approach.
In fact, in a 2017 study on Americans’ changing views on health care, the Pew Research Center found that now two-thirds (66%) of Americans say getting enough physical exercise is very important in disease prevention, reflecting an increased emphasis on health and wellness as a preventative measure to health care. That same study found that a majority of Americans do their own research, in addition to taking the advice of their providers, when making health care decisions, with some seeking to learn more about the provider’s recommendations and others checking for alternative treatment options or to learn about potential side effects of the recommended treatment.1
It is likely no coincidence that this shift has coincided with technological advancements which make things like research, communication and access easier than ever. In addition, the advent of things like wearable tech and at-home fitness programs help individuals track and improve personal fitness, creating more opportunities to be informed and engaged in their health. Recent surveys done by Deloitte Insights in the months before and then during the pandemic found that, “In 2020, 42% of US consumers said they used tools to measure fitness and track health-improvement goals…a significant jump from just 17% in 2013.”2
There is, simply, more and better information available, and consumers feel more comfortable than ever in exerting agency over their own healthcare decisions, and are empowered to make choices regarding nutrition, fitness and behavior that can yield benefits down the road.
PHYSICAL THERAPY IS NOT ALWAYS “MEDICAL,” BUT MOVEMENT IS MEDICINE
An uncomfortable truth about marketing for physical therapy is that we’ve struggled to “sell” physical therapy as a resource for the general population, but within the broader cultural shift there lies an opportunity for physical therapists to take our rightful place as the experts in muscle and joint health. Despite this opportunity, the voices of physical therapists tend to get drowned out by the louder, flashier entities not burdened by a history of medical constraints – fitness centers, fad regimens, novelty equipment, chiropractors and other groups that have, over time, been able to position themselves as the first-stops for body health.
The goal, then, is to change public perception about physical therapy from that of a strictly “medical” service, to a service that emphasizes “movement as medicine” by meeting all ranges of needs and issues related to muscle and joint health—from minor pain to major injury—and especially as a resource for preventative care and general fitness. To do this, we have to focus on content and messages that bridge the gaps between accessibility, innovation, expertise and results. While your approach will change depending on which audience you’re speaking to, there are a few lessons we can take from these trends that can inform how we might strategically consider marketing physical therapy to the modern consumer.
1. BROADEN YOUR CONTENT FOCUS
As physical therapists, we tend to focus on clinical treatment, symptoms, and outcomes, specifically things that are happening in the clinic. Though that type of content is most relevant to our work, there is still plenty of room and opportunity to expand content to encompass health and fitness before physical therapy is ever needed. By including materials and messaging that explore things like injury prevention, fitness for specific activities, general musculoskeletal education and other, broader health-related subjects, we begin to create an association with audiences between physical therapy and overall fitness, as well as positioning physical therapists as the preeminent experts in body health. The more we can make these associations, the more they will resonate with the general public.
2. BE MORE SPECIFIC WITH YOUR MESSAGING
It might seem like a contradiction, but an extension of broadening content focus is getting more specific with messages. It’s always enticing, when putting together marketing materials, to want to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, but by targeting language and topics to specific audiences based on interest and activity, you’re more likely to grab their attention. In this case, it’s a matter of connecting with smaller audiences on a more meaningful level. For example, when promoting direct access, it is likely more effective to talk directly to parents of student-athletes prior to a season with language like, “Did you know that if your young soccer player is experiencing knee pain they can come directly to a physical therapist without visiting their primary care physician? Save time and get your star back on the field by seeing a physical therapist first!”
3. MEET THE AUDIENCE WHERE THEY ARE
Technological advancements and social media platforms have allowed individuals to connect with activity and interest-based communities like never before, and these communities are often used for things like sharing training tips and information about upcoming events, and performing research and of word-of-mouth inquiries into local experts. Encourage your clinicians join groups that are relevant to their own clinical interests—such as runners’ groups, online fitness communities or groups for parents of local student-athletes—and join in on the conversation. It’s vitally important that the discussions remain authentic, which means keeping the “sales speak” to a minimum, but this provides a perfect opportunity to share the relevant, value-based content you’ve been creating. For example, sharing a training and injury prevention video for runners in a local runners group on Facebook demonstrates your expertise within that niche community, introduces a local clinician to the group in an authentic format and creates brand awareness—without coming off as a sales pitch.
4. EXPAND YOUR OFFERINGS
Given the current climate, it may be difficult to think about expanding your service offerings, but as the public continues to broaden its idea of “health and fitness” and look towards more comprehensive health services, it may be worth considering where physical therapy intersects with other practices. While many clinics may already be offering things like transitional rehabilitation, athletic training, and/or personal training, there are other, more specific services that have gained traction in the past few years, including workspace ergonomics assessments, yoga/Pilates, telehealth screenings, and nutrition coaching. In addition to new services, and considering shifting attitudes about preventative care, some clinics are even expanding their treatment structure to make room for innovative membership or rewards plans that charge flat monthly or annual fees for regular body maintenance. If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that innovative thinking in health care can yield benefits for both patients and providers!
5. LEVERAGE TECHNOLOGY
With the adoption of new technologies in the health care space, whether by providers looking for new ways to connect and communicate with patients and each other, or by patients using new tools and apps to better pursue and track their fitness goals, there’s always the potential to get ahead of the curve. One clear example is telehealth; clinics and organizations that were forward-thinking enough to offer virtual services before the pandemic were already a step ahead when it became a necessity for continuing care in 2020. For your business, taking advantage of new technology may be as involved as building out a custom scheduling and home-exercise-program app for your patients, or as straightforward as redesigning your website to make user navigation and scheduling easier. Ultimately, by meeting the demands of an ever-evolving market, we can make physical therapy more accessible to the general public.
Peter Decoteau is the Director of Marketing at Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine Centers (PTSMC), Connecticut’s largest private practice physical therapy company. He can be reached at email@example.com.