I recently took a trip back to my home state of Iowa. And while I was there, I got the chance to meet one of the more prominent private practice physical therapists in the state (and one of my longtime digital pen pals), Sandy Norby, PT, DPT.
If you’ve heard of Sandy (and I know a lot of you have) it’s probably because of all the work she’s done advocating for the physical therapy profession on the national stage. But we’ll get back to that.
While in Iowa, Sandy and I had one pretty specific goal in mind: to host the very first PT Pub Night in the beautiful Okoboji / Iowa Great Lakes region. This is where Sandy calls home these days, and it’s where I grew up before finding my way to Oregon more than a decade ago.
So on a fine Wednesday evening in early August, Sandy, her husband Kim, and I met up at West O Beer and welcomed close to 20 PTs from around Northwest Iowa to a fun night of conversation, food, drinks and general PT-related chit-chat.
We also talked about national policy and, more specifically, the twists and turns of Sandy’s most recent success as an advocate of the PT profession. It was a topic that was bound to come up eventually.
See, while Sandy, owner of Hometown Physical Therapy clinics in Iowa, has a pretty extensive history of advocating for private practice physical therapists, her name will forever be linked to a single PT-related issue: locum tenens.
And the reason is simple: she had a memorable and relevant story to tell.
The Power of Storytelling
As a content marketing professional and a former journalist, I often talk about the power of great storytelling. Stories are memorable, I say, because they’re relatable. Plus, they tug on the strings of that all-important part of us which so often determines our actions: emotion.
I could tell you all about this, but it’s time I heed my own advice and simply let Sandy’s story show why stories are so powerful. And her story about locum tenens is powerful, involving a small-town clinic, a blow-up bed, and 12 weeks of growing frustration in “the system.”
Here’s how it went down:
Just a few years ago, the only physical therapist in one of Sandy’s small-town clinics in Buffalo Center, Iowa (population of less than 1,000) was about to go on maternity leave. And Sandy was unable to find a replacement PT in time to get him or her enrolled in Medicare, leaving her with just two options:
Close the clinic for 12 weeks, essentially cutting off PT access for a number of Buffalo Center patients, or serving as a fill-in herself.
She chose the latter.
But because the commute from her home to Buffalo Center was more than 2 hours, and since there was no motel in town, this meant she spent the next 12 weeks sleeping on an air mattress Monday through Friday so she could see patients during the week.
Sandy’s experience, and the dilemma that led her to it, hit at the heart of the locum tenens issue. Latin for “to hold a place,” or the ability of a practice to provide care continuity for Medicare patients in a PT’s absence, the locum tenens issue has for years created problems for private practice physical therapists – issues the law had already corrected for other health care professionals.
“I knew that M.D.s and other medical professionals would not have to sleep on a blow-up bed to cover the absent provider’s patients,” Sandy said, pointing out the inequity of the law. “So each night I spent there, the thought, ‘This has to change,’ gained momentum.
“I knew that I was going to be very, very vocal as this wasn’t fair. It didn’t make sense why PTs wouldn’t get the same privilege as other medical professionals.”
So, through her connections made working within the APTA and its Private Practice Section (PPS), Sandy took her story to lawmakers. This started with her own U.S. Senators from the State of Iowa, which led to testimony before the U.S. Congress’s House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health.
And it all made a difference.
In December of last year, then-President Barrack Obama signed the 21st Century Care Act which, among other things, granted locum tenens to physical therapists. Sandy’s story and her testimony, along with connections made through previous advocacy efforts, are credited for helping make this happen.
“I am likely a good storyteller, and talking about sleeping at the clinic and making sure the patients in this small, rural town were taken care of – and the lady that brought me homemade angel food cake every Thursday – created a visual for staffers that seemed to make a difference,” Sandy said.
Her efforts earned her the 2017 APTA Federal Advocacy Leadership Award. Hear Sandy summarize her story in this interview with the APTA:
Here’s the Lesson
If there’s one thing to take from Sandy’s experience, it’s that stories DO matter.
Stories are incredibly powerful tools in educating people, changing the way they think, and ultimately getting them to act on these thoughts. This was true for Sandy as she worked to improve the PT profession through legislative advocacy, and it can apply to private practice PTs who simply want to get the word out about how physical therapy can change lives, communities … the world.
But what makes a story? This, my friends, is an important distinction.
As a marketer for physical therapists, I often see PTs with the greatest of intentions blandly sharing information about topics rather than telling stories. There is a difference, and this difference is mostly based around context.
Here’s what differentiates a story from a topic:
A story is timely. Why should people care about your topic right now? Does it relate to the season? Current events? A story makes this connection.
A story establishes significance and proximity. Who’s affected by your story? What makes it important to the people in your community? A story should bridge the gap between the topic you’re discussing and how it affects the people around you.
A story has human interest. People love stories about other people – about struggles, overcoming hurdles, finding success, etc. Tell stories (e.g., patient success stories) that serve a greater purpose or point about a topic.
A story adds value to a topic. This is the ultimate goal, isn’t it? PTs everywhere should always try to tell stories that construe the value of their services, programs, and physical therapy itself. In this sense, great stories don’t just have happy endings, but they establish an optimal path toward a better life.
If you’d like to talk storytelling or geek out with me over the value of establishing a consistent content marketing strategy based around great storytelling, I’m happy to do so. Reach out to me any time via email or at 866-896-0181.