January 24, 2024 | Daniel Spears

3 Minute Read

To Combat Rehab Therapy Staffing Challenges, Engage With a Younger Generation of Clinicians

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Reduce physical therapy burnout with four tips for attracting and retaining new grads to your multi-site physical therapy operation

Just as a large portion of the healthcare world grapples with staffing retention and burnout challenges, rehab therapy staffing continues to take a hard hit. Despite playing a critical role in helping reduce healthcare costs while leading our patients toward a higher quality of life, factors like physical therapy burnout, salary, and work-life imbalances have led to an 11% reduction in the physical therapy workforce since 2020. Medicare reimbursement reductions for 2024 are likely to exacerbate the issue.

The result is that many practice owners, operators, and executive leaders started the new year with a sadly familiar challenge: overcoming growing issues with satisfaction and burnout within their clinical staff. This certainly holds true for contract rehab therapy organizations that serve skilled nursing facilities (SNF) and senior living communities, a segment of rehab therapy I worked in for several years.

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While potential solutions to these issues might run the gamut from improved pay and incentives to a more efficient work environment, many of these are band-aid solutions. And with a job vacancy rate of 17% for therapists in outpatient settings, therapy operators can’t just rely on the current crop of available therapists if they wish to remain competitive and profitable.

Instead, owners and operators must move forward with a new emphasis related to rehab therapy staffing: attracting, hiring, and molding the next generation of clinicians, both new and recent graduates.

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Why appeal to a younger generation of rehab therapists?

While the inexperience of new and recent graduates may turn off some owners and operators within the outpatient rehab therapy world, I’ve always seen tremendous potential in working with younger therapists.

In my time as single-site director of rehab and then regional operator, I loved getting young therapists in the door. While these younger clinicians were green from a clinical perspective, they offered a level of open-mindedness and creativity that is more difficult to find in many seasoned clinicians.

For example, younger clinicians may learn and adapt to physical therapy tech more quickly. So as your organization evolves into the greater utilization of digital tools and artificial intelligence (AI) for tasks like billing, scheduling, patient engagement, payer verification, etc., new grads offer a greater potential to become superusers of physical therapy tech and drive your organization toward new tech-based efficiencies.

Plus, if you can engage smart and eager rehab therapists early, you generally have more of an opportunity to influence the trajectory of their careers. By providing therapists with positive training, mentorship, and experience as new clinicians, employers have the potential to develop partnerships that lead to more years of employment (and less burnout) within the organization.

With this in mind, here are four ways therapy organizations that serve multiple sites can change (or maintain) their organization’s culture to attract younger rehab therapists and minimize physical therapy burnout:

1. Invest in employee engagement and satisfaction

In difficult financial times, it becomes harder for rehab therapy organizations – any organization, for that matter – to invest in programs that don’t directly generate revenue. This includes efforts tied to employee engagement and satisfaction, making them low-hanging fruit during financial pruning.

If you want to remain attractive to recent rehab therapy school graduates, however, maintaining such efforts is essential.

Programs that strive to create a sense of teamwork, pride, recognition, and employee support are essential in establishing a culture that combats physical therapy burnout by being attractive to younger therapists eager to begin their careers on a positive note.

The most effective of these efforts start at the top – at the executive level, not the regional level – to ensure organization-wide consistency and connectivity at all levels. They involve open communication from leaders, whether through regular company email updates or virtual town hall meetings.

These are meaningful efforts by executive teams that help take the onus off regional directors, enabling them to focus on work that more directly affects patients and profits.

2. Create ways to involve rehab therapists in high-level conversations

As they’re just beginning their careers, nothing can stifle a young healthcare provider more than the feeling she or he is just a cog in an oversized machine – a low-level member of the clinical staff with little say in issues affecting performance or satisfaction. Yet, this feeling can easily overcome a new rehab therapy grad who accepts a clinical position at a large therapy provider.

To avoid physical therapy burnout, organizations must establish ways to involve rehab therapists in high-level conversations about things like marketing, culture, clinical strategy, outpatient programming, and so on.

As professionals, rehab therapists want to be heard. Giving them a way to share their ideas, opinions, and concerns in a meaningful way, then ensuring these perspectives are being considered when decisions are made, is critical for staff morale and retention.

These opportunities can be provided to clinicians via open communication policies or through check-in meetings with supervisors. Skip-level meetings that allow clinicians to connect with higher-level directors can also be beneficial.

Quarterly or bi-annual employee surveys, while less personal, can also provide a platform for clinicians’ voices to be heard and their ideas considered.

3. Help clinicians understand and engage in rehab therapy issues

From a purely financial perspective, few rehab therapists are more deeply invested in their profession than recent graduates. Not only do many have five- and six-figure student loan debt, but they’re only just beginning a career around which the rest of their lives may be supported.

Young rehab therapists have a vested interest in issues affecting the industry and its various segments. This is why organizations that educate their therapists about what’s happening in their industry and how they can advocate for positive change have a leg up when recruiting young clinicians to improve rehab therapy staffing.

While our cohorts are naturally curious and astute, not every rehab therapist has time to read industry newsletters or keep up on issues featured in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News, Senior Housing News, and other reputable industry publications. Therefore, it’s helpful when organizational leaders can sift through the noise and inform clinicians about what’s most important in their corner of the rehab therapy space — and what they can do about these issues.

Providing these insights to clinicians sends the message that “We’re all in this together, and we’re going to help fight for you, your profession, and the industries of rehab therapy.”

4. Empower rehab therapists to be financially savvy

Historically, operators kept clinicians removed – protected, you could say – from healthcare’s financial transactions. The nuances of billing and revenue have always been part of the business, of course, but the industry hadn’t been financially squeezed to the point that financial issues were hardly ever pushed down to the therapist level.

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Today, directors and managers openly speak with their clinical teams about efficiency, productivity, and billing units. This causes practitioners to see their positions in a more transactional light, which over time has led to some viewing their careers that way, as well.

As a result, more appear willing to seek opportunities based less on career longevity and more on financial compensation. It’s not financially viable today for organizations to compete for clinical staff based on compensation alone. By offering additional value around said compensation, however, through added education, training, or assistance, rehab therapy operators may strengthen the allegiance of their clinical team.

Such education can be especially powerful for new grads and young rehab therapists early in their careers. What is an investment portfolio? What are the best 401K strategies? What’s the return on investment (ROI), and how does this factor into continuing education opportunities?

How can a new rehab therapist maximize his or her career earnings? What’s the best strategy for paying off student loan debt quickly and prudently?

Personal financial planning and information is something that’s patently missing from therapy school, though it’s an integral part of a rehab therapist’s long-term professional success. Tapping into the cumulative knowledge of your CFO and financial team to provide such support consistently and universally can help mitigate conversations around wages, reduce burnout, and offer them true long-term value within their careers.

About the author

By Dan Spears, PT, DPT
Account Manager-Strategic Client Partnerships, Net Health

Dan Spears is an Account Manager at Net Health with a six-year history of multi-site management in rehab operations. As an Account Manager, Dan partners with our enterprise/strategic clients to ensure their businesses succeed by leveraging Net Health products and services. Specializing in client partnerships, Dan uses his operational experience and expertise to connect deeply with our clients to meet shared goals.

By focusing on our therapy clients’ goals, Dan continues to put the Doctor of Physical Therapy degree he earned at Missouri State University to good use. Over the past year, his strengths at Net Health have garnered some recognition as Net Health’s 2023 Rookie of the Year. Dan may spend his days at Net Health, but client partnership and strategic engagement get him up in the morning.

When he’s not at Net Health, Dan is an avid outdoor enthusiast and loves spending time with his growing family. He stays active in professional advocacy through the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and is pursuing his MBA.

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