Integrating Treatment of Underserved Populations in Today’s Private Practice
With many clinicians flocking to larger areas with seemingly more potential patients, there are many other areas with underserved populations who are in need of physical therapy services.
By Emily Monson, PT
Being a private practice physical therapist is very versatile. We have the ability to start a career wherever we wish to open a practice: in a large city, in a rural town, or in a bustling suburban area. With the possibility of having our careers anywhere, it is important to remember that there are plenty of underserved populations that do not get the necessary attention they deserve, as providers often flock to areas where there are seemingly more potential patients.
I began my physical therapy career fresh out of graduate school in a city of about 50,000 people. The mid-sized city had the population to support a large hospital system, as well as private practices such as the one in which I worked. In physical therapy school, we are taught in-depth evaluation and treatment methods, but are rarely taught aspects of small business that would be useful to managing a private practice clinic. During this time, I had the opportunity to learn the design, administrative aspects, and daily operations of a successful private practice.
Very quickly, I found the private practice setting to be my niche, and I decided that I wanted to continue in that field when I soon moved to a very small, rural area of about 1,000 people. I took all the knowledge that I learned from that experience and put it into starting my own small, private practice clinic in an area where residents previously had to travel far distances for physical therapy care.
My practice started as a small outpatient clinic, and has grown over the past 10 years, adding specialties in industrial rehabilitation, cash-based services, sports medicine, and more. With five physical therapists, an athletic trainer, massage therapist, and occupational therapist, we are now the one-stop therapy clinic for our small community. By strategically placing our clinic in a low-cost site, we have been able to provide quality care to an underserved population while still being profitable. Also, through teaming up with satellite medical clinics in the area and further establishing a community perspective, residents value our clinic even more.
It is a common misconception that you cannot be successful in private practice in a smaller community. Just because a town is small does not mean that they have a lesser need for therapy services. Many times, those who are in pain do not or cannot travel far for the physical therapy care they need to get better, so by placing a practice within their means, you can appeal to those patients in need.
The key to being successful in underserved, rural areas is to establish yourself in the community, do your research, and create a practice that caters to the specific needs of that small community.
- In a small community, residents know each other well. They make an effort to get to know members of their community and bond through shared values and interests. If you are new to a community, get to know the members, leaders, and industry so that you can become a more trusted and active member in the community.
- Do your research! Does the community revolve around agriculture? Is there a busy factory nearby where many of the residents work? Does the local high school have a growing athletic program? What age are most of the residents? Knowing these things will help you to decide what services will be most important to the members of the community. For example, if a large number of residents work in a factory, there may be a greater need for an industrial rehabilitation specialist to help return injured workers to their jobs. If the local high school has an athletic program but does not have an athletic trainer to oversee practices and games, and to treat injured athletes, then consider adding an athletic trainer to your staff to better serve the school and students. Remember that your private practice can boast more than just outstanding physical therapists and physical therapy assistants; it is possible that your community may be in need of a massage therapist, speech therapist, occupational therapist, or athletic trainer. Bottom line: Do your research and design your practice around the needs of the community. The more adaptable you are to the community’s needs, the more valuable your clinic will be.
Overall, think about what you can do for your patients (besides providing excellent therapy care) that will help them most. For example, by scheduling appointments within 24 hours of referrals, you can appeal to patients who have tight schedules and need immediate care. Also, by taking the time to verify benefits and insurance from day one and helping patients understand financial obligations each step of the way, you will appeal to those who may be worried about physical therapy financially. Working with your practice management team to make sure that you have successful billing and insurance programs will make a big difference to your patients.
The unique part of being a private practice clinician in a small community is that this setting allows you to really mold your practice around the needs of the residents. Not only is it great having a personal connection with patients and living in the community where you work, but also it is incredibly rewarding to know that you are serving a community that may not otherwise have received the care they needed without your practice. We can be guides to these patients every step of their recovery and truly make a difference in their lives.
You will find that being a clinician for an underserved population becomes more than just seeing patients and helping them overcome physical ailments; it becomes a part of you and you will become a very important part of their lives. I encourage you to take the plunge and choose to provide care for underserved populations; it is very rewarding and can indeed be done!
Emily Monson, PT, is an Impact editorial board member and owner of Clear Lake Physical Therapy & Rehab Specialists. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.