When patients drop out of care, your practice loses more than the revenue from those never-completed visits. You miss out on the future revenue from that patient potentially coming back as well as the additional referrals those patients might have delivered had they completed their treatment. Imagine that cycle as it continues—the loss of those never-referred patients making their own referrals—and you begin to grasp the scope of the loss.
We have more methods than ever before to engage with patients. Despite powerful communications and marketing tools and strategies, nearly two thirds of PT patients currently drop out of treatment. That’s an opportunity loss equal to about $250,000 a year for a typical PT practice. And missed word of mouth is a big part of that loss.
What are we missing?
At its core, patient engagement isn’t a technical, clinical process. And it isn’t a customer service transaction. It’s a relationship-building endeavor and—like all relationships—an emotional journey. From intake to discharge, our patients experience highs and lows, memorable, moments of excitement, pride, doubt and fear. A successful patient experience rests on your ability to meet patients where they are at every point along that journey.
You think you’re in the PT business. You’re really in the business of relationships.
When you understand where patients are emotionally in the life cycle of their treatment you can implement the marketing and communications systems that anticipate and address those needs. Without those systems, you and your team are left reacting to patients’ uncertainties, doubts and concerns after they arise. In today’s world, where patients are easily distracted, discouraged, and unsure of the value of treatment, that’s too late. Those patients leave your care, and with them goes their unmaterialized revenue and their power as word of mouth advocates for your practice.
4 turning points in the PT patient experience
You can’t drop in and out of empathic, informed attention to your patients’ experience. It’s an ongoing process throughout the stages of the patient life cycle. There are no moments or interactions that aren’t important. These are 4 points in the active patient journey that are especially critical. They illustrate the emotional terrain our patients experience in care, and how that connects to your work as a care provider. Anticipating these key interactions can cultivate the trust and delight in your patients that keeps them with their treatment plans, and makes them want to be ambassadors for your practice through word of mouth.
After intake, before evaluation
Patients have just completed a huge step. They’ve taken an action that more than 90 percent of the adults with physical therapy needs don’t ever take: they sought out a solution for their pain. That solution is you. At and around this point, they’re feeling excited and empowered—their brains are flush with dopamine from having taken that action. Now is the time to join them in their excitement and affirm their decision with enthusiastic, information-rich welcome communications from you and your staff. This is your one and only chance to “pre-frame” the experience that your patients are about to have in your care as one of nurture, enthusiasm, camaraderie, belonging and even humor. These early interactions are the first step in developing personal bonds, and in setting the tone for how your patients perceive your organization going forward. Make them memorable.
After initial evaluation
The dopamine-fueled confidence and thrill from making a decision doesn’t last. Post-evaluation is a common time for second-guessing doubt and fear to set in for patients, especially if they’re experiencing additional pain. There also tend to be a lot of questions that come up for patients after evaluations, questions that rarely get asked. This calls for a communications strategy that directly addresses those doubts and fills that information vacuum, helping patients re-connect with their initial confidence and commitment as they move forward into treatment.
After 3-5 visits
It’s right around the fourth visit that patients are most likely to abandon treatment.
What’s happening for patients at this point? Their pain might be improving quickly enough (in their perception) that they start to question whether they need to complete their care plan. Their pain might be taking so long to improve (in their perception) that they question whether treatment is really working.
Wherever your patients are in the treatment of their musculoskeletal problem, they are all facing essentially the same emotional gap: a brewing crisis in their trust of the process of physical therapy. That’s the need and concern you and your team must meet at this critical moment. It’s time to engage with patients to clarify expectations, address problems, re-affirm and re-commit to seeing treatment through to its end. Having a system in place for quality assurance check in at this phase of treatment can reduce drop outs and lift referrals by 25 percent.
After a successful discharge
You’ve shepherded a patient through an entire treatment plan. You’ve helped them out of pain, and in to a better quality of life. Your patient completed that journey because of the relational bonds you fostered along the way. Patients who get to this point are profoundly grateful.
Our patients are no different than we are. They want to help people, especially people they know and care about. Our patients want to do something with their gratitude. That’s how we end up with brownies and cookies. You can give them the opportunity do something far more meaningful. Now is the time to talk openly and directly with your healthy, delighted patients about referrals, testimonials, and reviews. Give them the chance to share the great experience they’ve had with you with others, including the people they know and want to help
This is a guest post by Dr. Jamey Schrier. Jamey is a physical therapist and founder of Practice Freedom U, which teaches practice owners how to grow and scale their business so they can prosper in and out of the clinic.