How Media Portrays the Physical Therapy Profession
It is not a surprise that many people have a limited understanding of Physical Therapy (PT). It is a young profession that has gone through a dramatic evolution over the past century. Yet it appears the history of the profession has perpetuated stereotypes that are difficult to separate from. This post will briefly look at the history of the profession and outline a possible reason for this continued confusion – the media.
The history of the profession is an interesting story. Depending on how far back you look, there are glimpses of therapeutic principles being utilized as early as 3000 BC – 460 BC. In the early 19th century, some principles of physical therapy including massage, manipulation and exercise were developed by Pehr Henrik Ling, a Swedish physical education and gymnastics instructor. He is known for pioneering physical education in Sweden and for developing calisthenics.
By the late 19th century, European countries began to recognize physical therapy as an official allied health profession. The following is a timeline of the key changes in physical therapy over the past century.
By looking at the evolution of physical therapy, you can see how these key events may contribute to the public perception of the profession. Depending on the patient that walks through the door, their impression of PT may be influenced by these events. A patient’s perception of physical therapy stems from personal exposure, word of mouth, social media and the internet.
Media is largely responsible for shaping cultural and public perception. Millennials are now the fastest growing and largest group to consume media, spending nearly 18 hours per day across multiple platforms. Interestingly, user-generated content is greatly consumed by millennials and trusted 40% more than traditional media. Unfortunately, traditional media still does a poor job of portraying the physical therapy profession.
Traditional stereotypes within the profession are emphasized, such as:
- Physical therapy is hard work
- Physical therapy is a long journey
- Physical therapy is passive treatment
- Physical therapy is gruelling exercise
- Physical therapy is a sexy female therapist
- Physical therapy is painful
Although one or all may be true at some point, this is not the norm. Fortunately, the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter offer a more intimate glimpse into the current evolution of the profession. This has both positive and negative effects on our professional public image. These platforms are great for sparking debate, and the large volume of user-generated content from well-respected researchers and clinicians in our field is a positive step forward. However, the dialogue seems to focus on the next macro shift in our profession, which is now arguably between manual therapy and pain science. To curious onlookers – our current or future patients – this debate questions entire key profession-defining events within the last century. Imagine the public confusion when a quarter century of physical therapy practice (i.e. a quarter of our professional existence) is fiercely debated on social media platforms. It is no surprise that the public doesn’t have a clear representation of how physical therapy operates when there is such a dramatic variance even amongst ourselves.
If you ask someone off the street to define the profession of medicine, pharmacy, podiatry, and even chiro, you will likely hear consistent and overlapping answers. Each profession has marketed themselves in a specific way and has stayed consistent in that public message even during times of professional evolution. For example, pharmacy has shifted from a profession that manufactures compounds prescribed by the physician to the medical profession that is the leading expert in the complexity of pharmaceuticals (including manufacturing, dosing, drug interactions, etc). Part of the challenge for PT may stem from our broad professional scope and differences in the clinical practice of each therapist. Medicine has formed specialties to address this issue and PT seems to be heading in this direction too. The focus should now shift to changing public perception through strong communication and demonstrating our value as a profession. Physical therapy must find, simplify and solidify a consistent message in order to emerge as a clinical expert within the interdisciplinary medical team.