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It was hard to walk away from the APTA Future of Physical Therapy Summit without feeling optimistic about the potential for PTs and PTAs to make a difference in society, and to be more convinced than ever that physical therapy can and will play an even more critical role in the health care system over the next century.

You certainly wouldn't get any argument about that from the chair of the Special Olympics international board of directors or the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Or first lady of the United States Jill Biden, for that matter.

All three delivered comments to attendees of the Sept. 13 event broadcast live from the Capital Turnaround in Washington D.C. The daylong experience was sponsored by Waterpik, WebPT, HPSO, Performance Health, NuStep, the American Council of Academic Physical Therapy, and the APTA Private Practice Section. (Watch a recording of the summit.)

Structured around the APTA mission of "building a community that advances the profession of physical therapy to improve the health of society," the summit broke down that statement into its component parts, exploring what the future might hold for efforts to strengthen connections, advance the profession, and make a positive difference in society as a whole. To accomplish that, the summit engaged an international group of participants from as far away as Australia and the United Kingdom in an event that went from inspirational storytelling to philosophical exchanges, to discussions around the nuts-and-bolts of seizing opportunity.

"Clinician," "collaborator," and "citizen" were the watchwords for the summit, appearing frequently on the stage and emblazoned on t-shirts commemorating the day (and still available in both unisex and ladies' styles).

High-Profile — and Unexpected

The summit had a couple surprises up its sleeve: an in-person visit from Biden and a virtual address from U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimando.

The first lady accepted APTA's invitation to speak as a way of saying thanks to the positive impact physical therapy has had on her life.

"We often think of healing as a science, and it is — but we're not just a collection of parts to be treated and tested," Biden said. "Health care providers must recognize the wholeness of who we are." That's what PTs and PTAs are all about, she added.

"You pioneered the treatment of chronic pain," Biden said, asserting that amid the current state of health care, where systems can seem overly bureaucratic and patients reduced to little more than a repository of data, "you remind us that there is a person behind every number, a person who is unique and vulnerable."

"Thank you for leading the way," she told the attendees. "You are here today because you have decided to be the strength that so many of us need in our most difficult moments."

Raimando, also speaking in recognition of her own experiences with physical therapy, said she had "lived it" and knows just what a difference care from PTs and PTAs can make.

"People are waking up to the power of physical therapy," Raimondo said. "Thank you for the life-giving work you do every day."

Special Olympics, an official APTA partner, added its voice to the event as well. Chair Tim Shriver addressed the summit, telling the audience that PTs "have been a lifeline for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities." Special Olympics representatives Loretta Claiborne, a Special Olympics athlete and member of the organization’s board provided remarks and Chief Health Officer Alicia Bazzano, MD, PhD, MPH, delivered one of several keynote addresses. 

Although not a regular occurrence, visits to APTA meetings from notable political figures aren't without recent precedent: in 2019, then U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, MPH addressed a meeting of chapter and section/academy leaders.

Building Community, Advancing the Profession, Improving the Health of Society

As impressive as the guest remarks were, the heart of the summit was the three main areas of presentation and discussion related to the APTA mission statement, along with a session focused on "passing the torch" to the next generation of PTs and PTAs. Here's a brief recap of each. (Look for a recording of the summit publishing within the next week and more extensive coverage in an upcoming issue of APTA Magazine.)

Building Community
Want to build a community? Then you'd better be willing to listen, learn, and, in the words of panel moderator, Amy Smith Hamel, PTA, BS, "settle in" to do the slow, steady work.

Hamel, regional director of operation for Restore Physical Therapy, was joined by Alicia Bazzano, MD, PhD, MPH, chief health officer for Special Olympics; Scott Willis, BAppSC, president of the Australian Physiotherapy Association; and Jazmine Tooles, PT, DPT, director of Explore the Magic of Motion, for the portion of the summit that explored making connections — both within the profession and among the public at large. Hamel likened the process to "settling in" for an uphill climb on a mountain bike, where consistency, perseverance, and pacing make all the difference.

In their individual remarks prior to the group discussion, panelists provided their own perspectives on how they dug in — and are still working — for change that brings people closer together. Bazzano stressed the importance of education and training among stakeholders, particularly health care providers, to better understand the needs of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to reduce health disparities.

The theme was echoed and expanded by Willis, who described the Australian Physiotherapy Association's ongoing reconciliation efforts with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, efforts that have included difficult discussions about the country's mistreatment of that population. Tooles stressed the need for PTs and PTAs to be more proactive in their outreach to underserved communities, asking "why do we wait for disability to strike for people to know who we are?"

Advancing Physical Therapy
When you think of health care, you probably picture a system that could be better. As voiced by Col. Deydre Teyhen, PT, PhD, to get away from being a health care system to being a system for health, the second group of panelists were clear on what advancing physical therapy entails: physical therapists as first-contact practitioners and as executive leaders, and using technology and evolving knowledge to increase patient access to services.

With Teyhen, chief of the Army Medical Specialist Corps, panelists were Alice Aiken, CD, PhD, MSc, BScPT, BSc, vice president of research and innovation at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia; Fabrisia Ambrosio, PT, PhD, director of rehabilitation for UPMC International in Pittsburgh; and François Desmeules, PhD, associate professor at Université de Montréal. Terry Nordstrom, PT, EdD, FAPTA, of California’s Samuel Merritt University, facilitated the discussion, and Natalie Beswetherick, OBE, MBA, director of practice and development for the U.K.’s Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, delivered a keynote address.

Teyhen encouraged PTs to strive for executive leadership positions, where decisions are made that can drive the needed changes in our health care system. Beswetherick described initiatives in the U.K. that have established PTs as first-contact providers, offering advice for similar efforts in the United States.

Aiken and Desmeules shared insights from Canadian health care. Aiken also discussed the advantages of PTs as first-contact providers, especially within the country's numerous rural areas; Desmeules described local musculoskeletal clinics that have helped unburden overscheduled medical specialists. Ambrosio discussed ways that technology, such as telehealth, regenerative rehab, and artificial intelligence, can provide better patient access and opportunities to personalize care.

Improving the Health of Society
Is physical therapy being provided to the patients who most need it? The consensus was “no” among members of the summit’s third panel. Causes, they said, include failure in messaging, lack of engagement, and lack of personalization.

The keynote speaker was Alarcos Cieza, PhD, MSc, MPH, of the World Health Organization, where she drives WHO’s agendas on rehabilitation, disability, vision, and hearing.

She was followed by a panel comprising Larry Benz, PT, DPT, MBA, president and CEO of Confluent Health in Kentucky; Antony Duttine, regional advisor, disability and rehabilitation of the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization; Sowmya Kumble, PT, MPT, clinical resource analyst in acute care at Johns Hopkins Hospital and board-certified neurologic clinical specialist; and facilitator Efosa Guobadia, PT, DPT, CEO of Move Together and FFITT Health and co-founder of Global PT Day of Service.

Cieza said the issue is one of equity, pointing out that in many countries no more than 50% of the people who could benefit from rehabilitation — which often includes physical therapy — have access to it. Benz attributed part of the problem to the comparatively small — 8%-10% — “spend” on musculoskeletal issues and the number of PTs who treat those issues. Sowmya cited the challenge of high caseloads and not being able to treat every patient, asking, “How can we make sure we’re reaching the patients who really need it?” Duttine warned that if the situation is challenging now, it will only become more so as the number of people who would benefit from rehabilitation continues to grow.

Passing the Torch
The last session of a day was all about the people who would be counted on to help make that future happen — the new and coming generations of PTs and PTAs.

The panel discussion was moderated by Cruz Romero, PT, DPT, manager of EXOS physical therapy in Phoenix, and a former member of APTA’s Student Assembly Board of Directors. Romero was joined by Laura Gull, PT, DPT, clinic director of Professional Physical Therapy in Holden, Massachusetts; Kathryn Sutton, PTA, MA, academic coordinator of clinical education for the Kent State University PTA program; and Kelvin Rivera, PT, DPT, who recently served as president of the APTA Student Assembly Board of Directors and, earlier, as APTA student core ambassador for Puerto Rico.

While topics of the discussion shifted, two common themes emerged throughout: the level of engagement in and enthusiasm for the profession among the younger generation of PTs and PTAs, and the importance of channeling that energy into making the connections that will elevate the profession — with the public, other providers, and payers.

"It's like sending 15 bowling balls down the alley at once," is how Gull described the level of passion for the profession among the new generation of PTs and PTAs.

Sutton and Rivera agreed, with each panelist offering possibilities for how that passion could be channeled to accomplish the APTA mission. Sutton tended to look at the younger generation as agents for change, saying that they could help the profession "stop looking at a subservient relationship with physicians" and become "the sought-after profession that makes the impact." Rivera's perspective was centered more on the possibilities for younger PTs and PTAs to make significant inroads in connecting with their communities, stressing that it's crucial to "remember where you're from" in order to build awareness and trust.

Gull added that in addition to the aspirational goals described by Sutton and Rivera, the younger generations also have a responsibility to take up their predecessors' commitment to advocacy for appropriate pay and recognition of the role of the PT and PTA in a wider range of areas, including telehealth.

"Advocacy is important," Gull said. "It's what we must do now for the future."

"Try something. Be the change."

The summit was bookended with remarks from APTA President Sharon Dunn, PT, PhD, who emphasized the importance of believing in the profession and its potential, even when the news of the day makes that belief seem elusive.

In her view, it boils down to a matter of faith.

Dunn described faith "not in the strictly religious sense of the word," but as "the part of us that embraces more than what's in it for me, or what's the path of least resistance, or what's the safest course of action."

"Faith liberates us to look outside our own experience," Dunn said. "Faith makes us believe in what firsthand evidence might suggest is impossible."

Dunn's closing remarks stressed the importance of acting on that faith in the profession, even when there's risk involved.

We may feel unsure about how to make change happen, "but that doesn't mean give up," Dunn said. "That means try. Try something. Be the change. Don't be afraid to experiment. Don't be afraid to fail."


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