Reflecting on the Community Impact Award
The recipients speak on both their careers and a prestigious APTA Private Practice honor
By Charles Scogna
In 2021, APTA Private Practice awarded the first Community Impact Award, bestowed upon a single member “who demonstrated the core values of excellence, integrity, social responsibility, altruism, and professional duty through a unique and sustainable program that positively impacts their community.”
Impact caught up with each recipient as they reflect on their careers, journeys, and what it means to have received such prestigious recognition.
Q: What does it mean to have been nominated by your peers/fellow members of APTA Private Practice?
Russell A. Certo, PT (2021 recipient): It’s a humbling experience to be both nominated and recognized for your work by your peers. During our careers, we all have been able to expand our offerings to other patient populations who can benefit from the expertise of a physical therapist. What we were able to recognize and then incorporate into our practice were other professions who could collaborate services with ours, to improve our community’s health. To be selected by my peers to receive this Community Service Award was validation of my teams’ work.
Brian Hartz, PT, DPT (2022): It is very humbling to be recognized in this way for contributions to the community, however, I cannot take credit for this award alone. It is my team of 35+ employees who truly deserve recognition. When you have a cohesive team working toward a common goal, the impact creates greater ripples throughout the community. I truly see the Community Impact Award as a team award.
Samantha Schmidt, MPT, NCPT (2023): It’s an honor to have the recognition, but there is no way I could make the impact without without the wind between beneath my wings — my business partners. Twenty years ago, our mission was to elevate physical therapy in Montana through evidence-based research, pushing our profession to innovate and do healthcare better for patients, providers and the community we serve. That’s still our compass as we look to the future of PT in Montana.
Q: What was your mission to impact your community?
Certo: Unfortunately, in lower socio-economic neighborhoods, very few medical and health services exist. Low reimbursements make it impossible for a private company to move into these communities and provide health services that would improve patient populations. This has led to these neighborhoods and communities dependent on non-profit agencies. Most of these agencies depend on local, state and federal grant money to offset low reimbursements from Medicaid programs. Without these grants no company or agency could provide healthcare services. One of these agencies, Jericho Road Community Health Center, a federally qualified health center (FQHC), approached our organization and asked if we would have any interest in providing our physical therapy/medically oriented gym (MOG) programs in a new building on Buffalo’s East Side, the unhealthiest, lowest socio-economic community in Western New York.
We were able to work out a financial arrangement where we became subcontractors within their space and Jericho Road was able to bill Medicaid as a FQHC receiving higher reimbursements making it possible to cover our costs for physical therapy and medical fitness services inside the MOG at Jericho Road. Using our data, that we have been collecting on chronic disease patients, Jericho Road was able to obtain $1 million in grant money to support patients who needed physical therapy and who would benefit from MOG services.
Hartz: In 2004, our team created the HARTZ Physical Therapy Fall Blast 5K. It was our first attempt at a large community initiative to raise awareness about physical therapy in honor of October being Physical Therapy month. Our entire staff rallied around the initiative to promote physical therapy. This October we will be having our 20th annual Fall Blast and have raised $295,000, every dollar of which has been given to a local charity within our community. In 2014, our local food bank was in desperate need to refill their pantry in the spring. Our team immediately took to the challenge and created the Feed the Need food drive. From 2014-2021, we donated over 25,000 lbs of food to support their needs!
Part of HARTZ Physical Therapy’s mission is giving back to the community in which we live and work. With buy-in from our staff members, our community impact has grown steadily over the years. From our inaugural charitable fundraiser in 2004, a 5K to celebrate Physical Therapy month, to creating a charitable arm of HARTZ PT in 2020, we strive to support small local non-profits as they fulfill their missions each day. Our charitable footprint has grown as our team has grown, including not only our 20th annual Fall Blast 5K this October, but also an annual April food drive, a charitable golf outing in May and a walk to celebrate Parkinson’s Awareness month each Spring.
Our goal in creating these events is not only to raise money for amazing organizations, but also to bolster our team dynamic by encouraging everyone to chip in to achieve a common goal. It’s hard work, but seeing the end result, whether it be helping a homeless family to move in to their first home, or funding a new gym for an inter-city program which provides physical and emotional support for at risk teenagers, makes it all worth it!
Schmidt: I am one of the cofounders for a nonprofit called Fit to Fight, established in 2009, for patients going through cancer who are working to be healthy and keep moving during their cancer journey. It is a support group for those facing cancer based on education, fitness, and health that partners with the local DPT students and local experts in cancer care.
During early COVID-19, our company shut down for nearly two months. We had to pivot to telehealth visits like many providers at that time. What was unique about Montana was physical therapists had a statute for payment parity for telehealth or in person. Only, we discovered payers were not paying us the same for telehealth. Our company paid for a legal opinion on this and I then called close to 30 different insurance companies and explained Montana’s law for payment of telehealth physical therapy services. This was my first step towards working with payers, educating others about the policy and terms, and learning the ropes of being an advocate for our profession.
Prior to the vaccine, Montana did not have a mask mandate and it was difficult for us to ask patients to wear masks to provide protection to our physical therapists and other patients who were compromised and vulnerable. We decided to create a campaign called “Cover Up Missoula” and collaborated with 50+ other local businesses to support this campaign through social media understanding at that time, masking up helped keep employees healthy and businesses open.
Those experiences during COVID where we were challenged to adapt, innovate, and connect led me to stepping into the role of Vice President of the APTA in Montana and chair of the legislative committee in November 2021. My company has supported this role as I work on payment committees and task forces to elevate the PT profession by creating improved access for patients, reimbursement for providers, and a stronger physical therapy community in our state. Healthcare providers can no longer just treat patients, we must pay attention, engage with policy, educate the public, and connect with each other to ensure we can treat patients how they should be treated — compassionately through evidence supported, best practice.
Q: What does it mean to you to give back to your community?
Certo: There came a point in my business that I realized I was never going to generate “generational money.” About the same time, I recognized I was past the midpoint and thoughts of legacy and “did I make a difference” became a question. It was at this moment the Jericho Road opportunity was presented to me. I took the opportunity to my staff and asked them if it was something we could commit to as an organization, knowing it would never generate a profit, and it would take work and energy from all of us. To their credit my staff looked at the opportunity as a way to give back to the community that had supported our efforts as we grew. As most of us know and my staff demonstrated, we are all wired to serve; it’s in our DNA. From a human standpoint, this was something we felt we had to do.
Hartz: It is our responsibility to take care of the communities in which we live and practice. It has always been a core value of our practice, and I’m so proud of our team for making such a difference for so many nonprofit organizations and those in need.
Schmidt: Physical therapists have a unique role in the communities we serve and we need to make sure the healthcare system understands the value we bring. Physical therapists in rural Montana have had direct access since 1987, so patients often seek us out first and we have the opportunity to help patients navigate the medical system and teach them ways to seek health and independence through movement. I believe movement can change lives and through PT we help reduce total healthcare costs by reducing pain medication, preventing falls, and managing chronic disease by active interventions and education. We can give back to our communities by providing care that allows patients to say yes to life by giving them hope and potential through movement.
Q: What’s a message you’d like to send to others when it comes to giving back?
Certo: In my acceptance speech, I referenced a poem called “Ripples.” The nature of a ripple is you never know where it ends up or what affect it has after you influenced it. As therapists we have an opportunity daily to influence our patients lives. For most of us, we never know what happens to that patient and how we affect their future both functionally, mentally, and perhaps spiritually. As a business owner we have influence over our employees, and in some respects, we don’t know how our influence on them potentially gets passed along to their family and friends. In our personal lives many of us volunteer to coach youth sports or participate in youth sport organizations. I ended my speech by suggesting that on all our headstones we should have engraved on it the number of ripples we started in our lives. Our lives should be measured by the number of ripples.
Hartz: Winston Churchill said it best, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” If you are in a managerial role or owner, lead by example, push your team to go outside of their comfort zone both professionally and personally. Incentivize them to make a difference within their community.
Schmidt: Get involved! Show up and support those advocating for our professions and patients. It takes both wings and wind to fly – so we need to work together as a profession to support those who are working on policy, access, legislation, education, and community. By creating a strong professional community, we will soar to new heights for positive changes and impact.
Q: No person is an island. Who would you like to thank/acknowledge in regard to your journey all the way to Community Impact Award recipient?
Certo: When I was deciding what we should do with the Jericho Road opportunity, my wife suggested to me that not everything the organization does has to fit into a profit and loss equation. She knew right away it would be the best thing our organization would do. Additionally, the Jericho Road success does not happen and does not ripple through the East Side without the hard dedicated work of all the associates in my organization. Finally, my colleagues in my Peer2Peer group recognized what the Jericho Road project was all about and submitted the nomination to APTA Private Practice. I am humbled that they thought so highly of me, my staff, and that project.
Hartz: As I mentioned before, I consider this a team award — my entire team at HARTZ Physical Therapy make this possible. I’d also like to thank my parents who instilled a strong sense of community from a young age and my wife and kids for their support and encouragement throughout this journey (as well as many hours volunteering)!
Schmidt: I am so incredibly grateful for my business partners and best friends, Leah Versteegen and Angela Listug Vap. They inspire me, make me laugh, challenge me, and cheer me on — they are my wind. I also have the honor and would not be able to make the impact I have without my amazing colleagues in the Montana physical therapy community. Emily Herndon, Ben Kingan, Tyler Ladenburg, and Thomas Little. All these folks have supported me and Montana, the small-town state it is. I am so proud to see all their hard work and amazing support put Montana Private Practice on the national radar for impacting our community of Montana!
*These interviews were edited for clarity
Charles Scogna is a publication manager for Impact.
Russell A. Certo, PT, OCS, began his career working as a Staff Therapist in hospital systems including the University of North Carolina Hospital and Duke University Hospital. In 1988 he opened his own Independent Private Practice in Grand Island, NY. In January 2005, the first MOG (medically oriented gym) site was established and began delivering evidenced-based fitness programming to chronic disease patients and to healthy motivated members of the MOG. Russ has become a leading expert in the field ofmedical fitness integrated with Physical Therapy and has been an invited speaker at many national association conferences.
Brian Hartz, PT, DPT, has been an APTA member since 1998 and has been involved with APTA Private Practice for 20+ years. He’s attended conferences and has presented at the Annual Conference and/or CSM for the past six years. He’s passionate about employee engagement and proud to be a private practice owner for 23 years!
Samantha “Sam” Schmidt, MPT, NCPI, has been an APTA member since 2005. She graduated from University of Montana with dual degrees in Exercise Science and Psychology then completed her Physical Therapy degree at University of Utah in 2002. She started her career in a rural Montana hospital doing everything from wound care to outpatient ortho to skilled nursing to home health. Sam moved to Southern California to complete her comprehensive Pilates certification in 2004 and moved to a private practice outpatient setting. In 2006, she returned to Montana and began ownership with Alpine PT in Missoula where she continues to practice today. She is the APTA-MT VP and Leg Comm Chair. When she is not in the clinic or teaching Pilates, she is on the river, around the campfire, or making powder turns with her husband and two children.