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6 Steps to Becoming a Physical Therapy Advocate

Rizing Tide Team

Physical therapy (PT) is a discipline that is often overlooked by both insurers and patients. More than 50% of all Americans over the age of 18 report having a musculoskeletal condition like trauma, back pain, or arthritis—that’s about 259 million people in pain for those keeping track—but very few of those injured seek care. This problem isn’t unique to the U.S. either; the World Health Organization reports that one in three people around the world live with a health condition that could improve with rehabilitative treatment.

But even though musculoskeletal conditions are breathtakingly common (especially for people over the age of 65) and physical therapy could help millions of patients, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) frequently places PT payments on the chopping block, threatening practice revenue and making it more difficult for PTs to adequately serve the Medicare population.

These problems are, admittedly, pretty large—but there is a single solution that addresses them both: PT advocacy. There’s strength in numbers, and PTs can increase their public footprint and prove their worth to legislators by joining forces and advocating together. But advocacy is difficult without structure or a plan, so follow these steps to determine where—and how—to raise your voice in support of your profession. 

Step 1: Join a professional organization.

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is just one of several professional organizations across the U.S. that PTs can join. A recognized leader in national and state-level healthcare payment debates, the APTA channels the power of thousands of PTs toward addressing regulatory and legislative issues. 

Other organizations involved in legislative physical therapy advocacy include the APTQI and the PTPAC—as well as assorted PT specialty groups (e.g., AASPT, APHPT, APTAG, ANPT). Joining one or more of these organizations enables you to contribute to advocacy efforts without having to do much of your own legwork. Professional organizations will typically keep up with legislative changes for you, report back to members, and organize a response. All you have to do is join in when they ask for help—easy peasy!

Step 2: Choose your issue.

While we all want to make a positive difference in the world, it’s important to remember that you can’t change the whole world overnight. That’s a recipe for compassion fatigue and burnout. Examine the issues tabled by various organizations, or those that make the industry news, and decide what you’re most passionate about and what you want to—and can afford to—support. APTA advocacy currently encompasses several issues, including declining payments in the Medicare Physician Fee Schedule and the looming departure of telehealth access for PT patients

All of these issues are worthy of time and attention, but the secret to avoiding burnout is to pick one or two issues you:

  • feel strongly about, and 
  • have the time and resources to support. 

Emotional investment in an issue will keep you motivated, but it can run you into the ground if you’re not careful. Decide on a few priorities, and keep your involvement tightly focused. 

Step 3: Participate in advocacy campaigns.

Effective advocacy campaigns have the power to affect real change. We mentioned this earlier, but check out the various campaigns already underway amongst your professional organizations, and contribute to the ones that make the most valuable use of your time and talents. 

Capitalize on your strengths to make PT advocacy happen, including writing and mailing letters, posting about and tagging officials on social media, or using skills such as web design to create and send digital communications to advance the cause. 

Step 4: Connect directly with congressional representatives.

One of the most effective ways to bring about local and national change is to connect directly with your congressional representatives. It may sound intimidating, but we promise that your local reps want to hear from you! They want to know about their constituents’ experiences so they can try to protect those interests (and ultimately get reelected). 

You can always start small! Write a letter of concern about (or support for) a particular piece of legislation; it’s a great way to hold your elected officials accountable. Customized letters are very effective in physical therapy advocacy initiatives, particularly when they’re thoughtful and contain outcomes-backed evidence and data supporting your position. Keep your communications concise and to the point. Even if the elected representative doesn’t read your letter personally, an assistant will track the topics you cover in your correspondences, and bring the most important ones to the rep’s attention. 

Even better than letter, you can call your representative’s office on the phone—either to leave a message or to schedule an in-person meeting. This can be a great way to discuss a particular issue and ask them to support your position based on the information you bring to the table. 

Elected officials work for you. They only have power because of voters. Make your voice heard and insist that your elected officials listen to you. 

Step 5: Establish yourself as a thought leader.

Thought leaders (i.e., knowledgeable industry forethinkers) have the power to lead and guide entire industries toward a better future. When thought leaders take up a cause and speak publicly about it,  they create a domino effect, first drumming up a little support for their ideas. That, in turn, interests more people and drums up even more support—until finally enough people actively call for major change. While being an expert on a topic can help you become a thought leader, it’s more important that you are willing to share your sharp insight and thoughtful opinions in addition to these three ingredients: 

  • Education: Help other PTs expand their knowledge about current issues in the profession. 
  • Research: Pinpoint industry trends and problems, and look for a solution or path forward. 
  • Leadership: Rally other PTs to your cause, and take the first step toward enacting change. Call for advocacy. Organize around it! 

Become a thought leader by joining and contributing to discussion forums, giving public talks at events or on podcasts, or writing blog posts and media articles about the issues you support. As you make progress in PT advocacy, others will start to seek you out, and you’ll develop a public persona in the field. 

Step 6: Donate (if you can).

Money still makes the world go round, and even the noblest causes can fizzle out because of a lack of funding to cover costs. A small, regular donation to an organization (like the PTPAC or Rizing Tide)  goes a long way toward sustaining advocacy efforts. Researching legislation, rallying support, and speaking with legislators and political PACs can get expensive very quickly. So by donating to a physical therapy advocacy organization, you fund that labor and help keep the dream alive. Or, if you’d prefer, you can donate to a local representative’s election campaign if they’re both responsive to their constituents and firmly supportive of physical therapists.  

Your voice matters!

Everyone’s voice matters, and when many people actively involve themselves in advocacy efforts, it’s much easier to turn the tides and enact lasting change. It’s remarkable what we can achieve together! Through lobbying and grassroots regulatory efforts, we can shape policy on issues that impact the PT profession and the patients we serve. Take one small step today, and help the physical therapy field take leaps and bounds toward the field you want it to be.

About the Author

Rizing Tide Team

Rizing Tide is a scholarship program designed to empower a new generation of BIPOC leaders in the physical therapy profession. We partner with PT and PTA students, PT residents, and industry leaders to advance diversity and inclusiveness in the physical therapy workforce and inspire better—and more accessible—patient care.