Healthcare Physical Therapy

By Topic: Leadership Decision Making Professional Development By Collection: Blog

patient with nurse

I have often been asked what steps I took to successfully pivot from being a practicing physical therapist to a healthcare executive leading multiple business units and divisions.

While my path in healthcare leadership was not perfectly planned, there were several things that better positioned me for success and allowed me to avoid being confined solely to the world of physical therapy.  

Physical therapists are exceptional at problem solving. We are trained to thoroughly evaluate a patient’s history, signs, symptoms and results from our own tests and measures to devise a therapy diagnosis and develop creative ways to remedy a concern. As a healthcare executive and business leader, I do exactly that. The same problem-solving skills that are used in patient care are also used in making business decisions in healthcare. In either case, you never have a perfect set of information to work from, but you get comfortable with making the best decision possible with the information you do have. You also have to detect early on when your plan isn’t going as expected so you can re-evaluate and implement changes in real time. I truly think the decision-making and problem-solving skills we get in physical therapy school help set the stage for healthcare leadership.

Here are some tips I found helpful in helping me pivot from physical therapist to healthcare executive.  

  1. If you work as a physical therapist in a large health system, try to get involved in projects that have an impact on the entire system as well as across multiple business lines. Every time I got the opportunity to participate in these types of projects, I learned something about healthcare that I didn’t already know. I took note of operations and vital topics in nursing, human resources, physician practice management, urgent care, imaging and much more. I drew parallels and contrasts between those areas and the business of physical therapy. In order to lead in healthcare, you need a basic knowledge of key areas that you don’t always get deep exposure to when you are in physical therapy school.  
  2. Consider getting additional education through degree programs such as a Master of Business Administration, Master of Healthcare Administration, or even additional healthcare or business courses. While serving in the role as manager of various physical therapy sites, I decided to pursue a Master of Business Administration so I could grow my knowledge base in general business concerns and how to run a business. This gave me a solid foundation of business and helped me understand terms often used in finance and strategy meetings. I applied the tools and principles learned as often as I could.
  3. Engage with or become a member of healthcare organizations and associations outside physical therapy, such as ACHE and the National Association of Health Service Executives. There are many to choose from. These organizations host conferences and provide education on hot topics and trends throughout the industry. For me, my ACHE membership was extremely beneficial toward my pivot. I even decided to pursue board certification as a healthcare executive by going through the process to become a Fellow of ACHE.
  4. Pay attention to trends in other fields outside of healthcare. When you see other industries transforming their business models through digital and virtual channels, that is a sign healthcare needs to transform as well. If you see other industries changing how they outreach to diverse customers, that’s also a sign that healthcare may need to change. Other retail and consumer focused businesses quickly shift to follow the demand and needs of their consumers. Healthcare tends to be slower to react and engage in these trends (outside of the global pandemic). However, staying informed of these trends and taking action when indicated is what successfully business leaders do.

Nichole Wilson most recently served as vice president, integrated primary care, Community Health Network, Indianapolis.