January 27, 2023 | Doug Cundiff, MPT, MPH

6 min read

Identify and Overcome 5 Common Patient Engagement Challenges in Outpatient Rehab Therapy

By Doug Cundiff, MPT, MPH
VP of Hospital Therapy Solutions, Net Health

Read the room.

When trying to engage one person or a crowd of people, this is one piece of advice that tends to stand out. Even the most well-intended plans and the most fascinating talking points, after all, are only going to appeal to a finite number of people.

This is certainly the case with patient engagement efforts, which are becoming increasingly important to the success of outpatient rehab therapy clinics operating in today’s consumer environment.

What is Patient Engagement in Outpatient Rehab Therapy?

For those who don’t know, patient engagement refers to the active involvement of patients in their own healthcare journeys.

The effort – and make no mistake, it is an effort – involves empowering patients to take a more active role in their own healthcare. This includes helping them make more informed decisions, learn to self-manage their ailments or conditions, and most effectively communicate with you, the provider.

How long is this journey?

Ideally, patient engagement should never end at the completion of care. Whether in clinics, hospital outpatient therapy or inpatient acute care, The ultimate goal of these efforts is to establish patients for life – people who easily find you, remember you, share their positive experiences with others, and access your services the next time they’re injured or in pain.

That’s the ideal, anyway.

The reality, though, is that patients lead busy and sometimes complicated lives. And, despite your best-laid plans, engagement can be difficult.

This is where the ability to “read the room” comes in handy.

Below, I help you do this by offering tips for identifying some of the most common hurdles that arise during a patient’s journey and how these can impact engagement. In addition, I offer some ideas for overcoming these challenges as you aspire to create patients for life.

Challenge 1: Being Discovered

Patient engagement isn’t just something that happens. You must make it happen by standing out in your market, particularly when it comes to local online searches via Google and other relevant search engines, social media apps and directories.

This begins with ensuring your outpatient rehab therapy clinic’s listings are both thorough and accurate. Do listings include the right contact information, locations, hours of operation and service offerings?

If not, that throws down a significant hurdle in your ability to connect with new patients.

Online reputation also plays an important role. Good reviews are important, but even more critical is the ability to feature a substantial number of good reviews from past patients over a long period of time.

Challenge 2: Creating a Positive First Impression

Everyone knows the value of making a positive first impression. What some may not immediately realize, however, is that “first impressions” can happen along multiple points in a patient’s journey as they refine their impressions of you, your clinic and your staff.

For example – and to back up to my previous point – listing inaccurate and/or incomplete information online can turn off potential patients pretty quickly. It also makes it difficult for them to contact you – another strike against your brand.

Beyond these listings, your answers to the following questions can help you identify areas where patients may feel unease early on in their rehab therapy journeys:

  • Can patients access your clinic? Are you equally responsive to phone calls, emails/online messages, texts, etc.?
  • Do your hours of operation meet the demands of your patients and your community? For example, do you offer expanded hours for working adults?
  • Are you able to provide patients early access to paperwork so, when they arrive, the focus is on seeing the therapist?
  • Have you proactively prepared patients for their appointments through reminders and by answering questions about what they might expect during their first visits?

Challenge 3: Completing a Full Plan of Care

Once a patient begins his or her plan of care, odds are unfortunately against its full completion.

One 2021 study found that 73% of all patients missed at least one appointment during a given physical therapy care episode.1 In addition, just 35% of physical therapy patients fully adhere to their plans of care.2

Yet, the best outcomes occur (and more revenue can be made) when a patient is fully engaged and has bought into their entire plan of care. How can you accomplish this?

The first step is simply making sure patients attend all their appointments. This starts with providing automated reminders and, if something comes up, making it simple for the patient to reschedule either directly or online. The ability to predict patients at high risk of missed visits can also help.

Other ways to engage with patients during their POCs is to share progress updates through patient-reported functional outcome surveys, deliver home exercise programs (and reminders) electronically so they can be accessed any time, and simply check in with patients between appointments via call, text or email.

Challenge 4: Staying Top of Mind

Patient engagement doesn’t end once treatments are complete.

As a clinic, you’ve invested a lot of time and effort into your patients, with hopefully positive results. Now, you want to be remembered as a phenomenal practice, and you want the patient to come back the next time they can benefit from rehab therapy.

Start this effort by taking the time to check in with past patients. A week or two after their final appointments, reach back out to them to see if they’re still feeling good both physically and regarding their experience at your clinic.

Also, be sure to add all patients to your marketing list so they continue to receive information from your clinic about new services, new-to-them services, clinic changes and growth, and upcoming events/workshops they may wish to attend.

Challenge 5: Creating Raving Fans of Your Services

This is also a great time to both invite and empower patients to sing your praises to others who might also benefit from rehab therapy services.

Creating raving fans, as I like to call it, includes asking satisfied patients to leave online reviews about your clinic, which will boost your overall reputation. You can ask for this in person, or you can follow up with patients via email by sending out a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey.

And, if you identify a happy patient with a unique story to tell, ask them if you can share this story online, via social media or your website. Such stories can inspire others on similar paths to discover you, creating a patient engagement loop that’s both fruitful and necessary for your clinic.

Ebook: 5 Strategies for Reducing Last-Minute Rehab Therapy Cancellations & No-Shows

Access Ebook

National Library of Medicine, “Prevalence and predictors of no-shows to physical therapy for musculoskeletal conditions,” May 28, 2021. 
National Library of Medicine, “Correlates of exercise compliance in physical therapy,” Nov. 1993.

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