Leveraging Telehealth to Reach an Underserved Microniche Market
How the author used web-based tech and marketing to reach and treat a microniche patient population
By Elizabeth Plowman, PT, DPT
I opened my telehealth physical therapy practice in 2019 with two purposes in mind:
1) reach patients who need physical therapy services but cannot easily access an outpatient facility, and 2) continue practicing in the profession I love as a physical therapist with a disability.
In 2018, I was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis (MG), a rare debilitating neuromuscular disorder that causes severe weakness and rapid fatigue of voluntary muscles that worsens with repeated use of the affected muscle. It can affect any voluntary muscle but tends to mostly affect the proximal muscle groups of the hips and shoulders, diaphragm, eyes, neck flexors, and mouth.1 I was unable to continue practicing physical therapy in the “traditional” sense due to this condition, but I was able to practice via telehealth as it was far less physically demanding. My aim was to treat patients like me: those who desperately need physical therapy care but have difficulty accessing it in the outpatient setting (and do not qualify for home health care). There are many patients who would benefit from physical therapy, but because of chronic pain, fatigue, weakness, transportation difficulty, etc., getting to the neighborhood physical therapy clinic is a daunting prospect and can often cause more exhaustion and/or pain than the physical therapy treatment can address. I was on a mission to help these people.
Initially I geared my telehealth practice toward patients with chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia. However, through my own journey with MG, I discovered that many physical therapists have little to no understanding of this condition and are, therefore, poorly equipped to handle its unique presentation and the needs of patients with MG. Due to the relative rarity of the disease, MG patients are spread out across the country. With the ability to obtain licensure in several states through the PT Compact, I was able to extend my practice across state lines to reach MG patients. Currently, there are 21 states actively participating in the PT Compact with 18 states at some point in the legislative process to approve entry.2 Through telehealth, I am able to provide care to MG patients who do not otherwise have access to a physical therapist with the training and skillset to treat their condition.
In marketing to a microniche population such as individuals with MG, typical marketing methods, such as paid social media ads, newspaper ads, fliers, and health fair events are not effective at targeting such a small section of the population unless those publications and events are specifically for the target market. I opted for a more organic marketing approach by providing webinars, creating informational online content to share in various online MG communities, and speaking at virtual MG support group meetings. Once I presented at one or two meetings, I was invited to speak at more meetings in other states. I never once asked anyone outright to become a client, but because I provided quality information specific to their needs and demonstrated that I provide physical therapy care designed for people with MG, they came to me. And then they referred their friends.
Initially, people with MG were not my target patient population. It was my “side gig” pet project because I wanted to help people like me. As a patient (physical therapists need physical therapy, too), I had experiences with several physical therapists who had no idea how to treat someone with MG and prescribed treatment plans that would have made me worse if I had not been a physical therapist myself with advanced study on the condition.
In the online MG forums, I encountered several people with similar experiences with physical therapists who did not know how to effectively treat them. This was actually how I found my first MG patient for my telehealth practice. And over time, what started as a passion project became my primary practice focus. If not for the telehealth practice medium, this would not have been possible. MG is a rare condition with an estimated prevalence of 14-40 per 100,000 people in the United States, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD).3 With such rarity, it would not be feasible to have a profitable physical therapy practice focused on this market; however, via telehealth and the ability to practice across state lines with the PT Compact, I am able to do this.
With a 100% virtual physical therapy practice, online presence is everything. I established Facebook and Instagram profiles as “The Myasthenic PT” to create a public image and an avenue by which to disseminate informative content and to interact with the various online MG groups. I also created a YouTube channel to publish periodic informative webcasts that are sharable on social media. At the end of the day, people may not remember my name, but they will remember “The Myasthenic PT.”
GROWING A MICRONICHE BUSINESS
When the time came to bring an assistant on board, I opted to keep this position virtual too. Since I operate out of a home office and do not actually have a brick-and-mortar clinic, hiring someone to work remotely made sense. Currently I employ a virtual assistant who handles tasks such as social media and email marketing, lead follow-up and nurture, communication with patients and physician offices, scheduling, website management, and data entry and collection. I was affected by the unprecedented winter storm in February 2021 with subsequent extended power outage and severe structural damage to my home (which is also my office). The beauty of a 100% telehealth setup meant that I was able to pick up my practice again at my temporary lodging with very little time lost. Also, since my virtual assistant does not live in the same area that I do, he was able to keep working and communicate with patients and leads on my behalf while I was out of commission (and desperately preserving my dwindling cell phone battery). If not for my practice model, I would likely have lost at least two to three weeks of patient care.
While I made the move to telehealth out of necessity due to disability, it is a practice model that I love. Not only have I been able to continue practicing as a physical therapist, which I love, I have been able to reach an underserved microniche market desperately in need of quality physical therapy care. And the commute to work is amazing.
1Myasthenia Gravis. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/myasthenia-gravis/symptoms-causes/syc-20352036. Published May 23, 2019. Accessed February 22, 2021.
2Physical Therapy Compact. www.ptcompact.org. Accessed February 22, 2021.
3Kaminski HJ. Myasthenia Gravis. National Organization of Rare Diseases (NORD). https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/myasthenia-gravis. Published January 21, 2021. Accessed March 1, 2021.
Liz Plowman, PT, DPT, is the owner of Pain Boss Physical Therapy in Texas. She can be reached at (832) 458-1480, Liz@PainBossPT.com, www.facebook.com/PainBossPT, www.facebook.com/TheMyasthenicPT, and Instagram @TheMyasthenicPT