DEI in Health Care: The Role Rehab Therapists Play and Why It Must Start in the Clinic

Diversifying the rehab therapy industry

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The events of the past year have put a spotlight on the deep racial inequities that exist in our nation’s healthcare system—particularly within the rehab therapy sector. While there are numerous factors contributing to these inequities, one primary cause is the lack of diversity among providers, and especially among rehab therapists. 

In fact, WebPT’s 2021 State of Rehab Therapy report exposes the industry’s stark racial diversity gap. As it stands, more than three-quarters of rehab therapy professionals are white. By contrast, according to 2020 US census data, white individuals account for roughly 60% of the population. 

So, if we are to mitigate racial disparity, provide a more relatable patient experience, and drive better long-term outcomes to underserved populations, then we must make diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) a priority across the entire care continuum. And I believe rehab therapists play an integral role in this transformation. After all, building better—and more accessible—care paths begins with those who are on the front lines of patient care. 

Prioritize DEI in the clinic setting.

Prioritizing diversity in the clinic is not only helpful for creating an inclusive work environment that respects the different needs, ideas, and approaches of all rehab therapists, it’s also critical to expanding access to care. When a clinic’s roster of therapists better resembles the patient population, the care delivered is often better-attuned to the specific cultural, socioeconomic, and environmental factors that affect those patients—and their outcomes. And, by building a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable practice, therapists can set the stage for reaching a larger population of patients who could greatly benefit from rehab therapy. 

When providers are more sensitive to—or better yet, share—a patient’s culture and background, they tend to deliver more culturally sensitive care. This has a powerful impact on care outcomes as their patients generally feel a deeper connection to them—and therefore develop a greater degree of trust in them. The benefits of feeling truly understood by a healthcare provider build the foundations for better health and well-being, as they chip away at some of the negative social determinants of health that most often affect Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). 

TaVona Denise Boggs, Thrive Network founder and physical therapist (PT), has experienced firsthand the effects of a lack of diversity on patient/provider relationships in outpatient settings. “White providers have difficulty relating to, communicating with, and understanding Black patients who frequently use colloquialisms in their speech,” she said. “This is compounded by the lack of provider understanding around the socioeconomic factors that may be affecting Black, Hispanic, or Asian patients’ ability to comply with a treatment plan.” 

Boggs went on to explain that “this may lead to assuming a patient is lazy or unwilling to participate in their recovery, which in turn breeds distrust of the healthcare provider.” Diversifying the rehab therapy profession is our strongest tool for fostering an increased understanding of underserved communities and ultimately improving their outcomes. And that diversification must start in the clinic setting. We must take actionable steps to create a more inclusive environment—not just talk about it. 

Don’t just preach, practice.

First and foremost, a successfully implemented DEI initiative begins with the acknowledgment and understanding that representation matters—as does acting to support diversity and equity in the rehab therapy profession. Not only will you need a high-level DEI advocate in your organization, you’ll also need to earn the buy-in of your staff. You can earn that by asking for feedback on your internal policies and outbound tactics. You never know what insight your staff can bring to the table! Below are some other ways owners can immediately start to incorporate DEI initiatives into the clinic setting:

  • Adopt the CEO Action Pledge to advance diversity and inclusion in the workplace. CEO Action is a business-led coalition focused on eradicating racial inequity by promoting public policies and corporate strategies that address systemic racism and social injustice and improve societal well-being. As such, it is the perfect wireframe to follow to help you incorporate DEI into your practice.
  • Create a DEI-focused culture. Cultivate an environment that values an assortment of perspectives and experiences—and celebrates both the commonalities and differences that exist among staff, patients, and the community at large. Evaluate your hiring practices and make changes to mitigate any existing biases—whether explicit or unconscious. From software that filters out biased language on job listings to removing photos and names from applications, there are a number of ways to decrease biased hiring practices. Additionally, encourage open dialogue with employees. Solicit feedback and be considerate of different ideas and points of view.
  • Make a plan to advance your DEI strategy outside of the clinic’s four walls. Be visible in your support and advocacy of DEI. Participate in community events that will expose your clinic and services to new demographics and promote your business as a community ally. Share your DEI policies on your website and in your marketing literature—and display them in the clinic. Get involved in—and recruit from—industry groups that are on a mission to increase diversity in our profession like the Alliance for Physical Therapy Quality and Innovation (APTQI) and the National Association of Black Physical Therapy (NABPT)

It isn’t enough to simply embrace DEI as a concept; you must think strategically about how to implement it at every level of your organization—from staff recruitment, onboarding, and patient procedures to promotional marketing, holiday schedules, and the business hours that you keep. Catering to your community and promoting DEI policies can help you grow your patient volume—and ultimately help the rehab therapy brand reach the 90% of people who could benefit from physical therapy but aren’t receiving it. And for the many people suffering from long-haul COVID-19 (particularly BIPOC populations), rehab therapy will be an essential point of care in their long-term recovery. We simply need to offer them accessible and excellent care. 

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