APTA 2018 Presidential Address

APTA Presidential Address 2018: 3 Takeaways for the future of the APTA

Three weeks ago, APTA President Sharon Dunn delivered the annual APTA Presidential Address before the House of Delegates. During and after the address, #pttwitter was filled with tweets and retweets affirming the direction the APTA is headed under Dr. Dunn’s leadership.

But those aren’t the only voices out there. Which leads me to my first takeaway.


1. Leading the APTA is kind of like herding cats

Here is the link to the livestream and written speech. http://www.apta.org/Blogs/PTTransforms/2018/6/25/Dunn/ In addition to watching or reading the speech in its entirety, I encourage everyone to read the posted member comments. Some are positive, while others are more negative. Away from the #pttwitter echo chamber, not everyone is thrilled with the messages of diversity, inclusivity, and societal transformation. It makes me think that leading the APTA, the job falling to President Dunn, the Board of Directors and the House of Delegates, is ultimately like herding cats.


There are thousands of members, over 100K at last count, and all have their own opinions, beliefs, and values. Some are religious, others not so much. Some are conservative and some liberal or progressive. Some are interested in sports, some ortho, some neuro. Some focus on the value of PT in traditional rehab settings, others see the potential for PT to work and expand into other settings with increased focus on prevention. Some want the APTA to be more vocal and explicit in criticism of the White House, while others would prefer to see the association skip the liberal platitudes and focus on issues specifically relevant to the clinician.

Some members are happy to fall into line and start calling congressmen to #stopthecap and others really couldn’t care less. Diversity of opinion within a group can be a strength, but only if that group can become a cohesive whole.

2. The majority of APTA leadership is committed to the vision of an outward facing APTA


Transform society by optimizing human movement to improve the human experience.”


While initially appearing simple, this vision statement is actually innovative, courageous and possibly rash. It is the vision of the APTA to TRANSFORM SOCIETY.  I will say that again: APTA has hinged its success on whether or not it is able to transform society. Considering all the forces currently confronting society: the Koch Brothers, George Soros, the Tea Party Movement, the #MeToo movement, Fake News, Russian election interference, etc, we have to wonder how our little professional association is going to be successful given all the other tremendously powerful forces at play. This is without even mentioning all the other powerful interests directly affecting the healthcare marketplace. And yet, it seems clear that the majority of APTA leadership is committed to that vision. Either APTA is incredibly foolish, courageous, altruistically visionary, or some combination of them all.

Currently APTA can only offer the vision of a society transformed. As members, we are required to pause and imagine a society of lower obesity, less cardiovascular disease, or fewer cancer deaths. While, I would love the clear road map for societal transformation, I have not yet seen it. How are we going to transform society? Is it by advocating for universal healthcare? Perhaps the beauty of the vision is its generality in that it allows us all room to explore and debate specific positions as we continue moving forward towards that grand objective. It allows us all to come together because, even though we are that herd of cats, we can all agree when it comes to helping our patients and clients.

As clinicians, we are familiar with serving and meeting the needs of patients/ clients but this task will not remain the profession’s sole expectation in the future. President Dunn explained that our association will be called to serve and meet the needs of society. House of Delegates passing RC-39, An APTA Statement in Support of Specific Essential Health Benefits, was an example of this.

3. APTA believes that change happens from the member up: and I am starting to believe them

It is easy and convenient to believe that societal transformation could happen by APTA effectively lobbying Congress on the right sets of issues. Those dreams are naive and counterproductive in their misassignment of accountability. Medicaid will not remain funded, rehabilitation will not be kept as an essential health benefit, nor will Medicare improve its physical therapy reimbursement based upon the efforts of APTA staff and leadership alone.


True transformation is about cooperation. In her address, Dr. Dunn specifically said that we cannot transform society through judgement, because judgement impedes cooperation. At a societal level, the APTA needs to cooperate and collaborate with the AMA, the AOTA, CMS, Congress, regulatory agencies and many others. At times we may need to criticise, but as Dr. Dunn explained, more often than not we need to roll up our sleeves and open our arms to find common ground to leverage our combined resources and achieve common goals.  


At an organizational level, members must cooperate and work together. Many APTA members are simply not engaged. There are members who send in their annual dues and then forget about the APTA. Some APTA members might be interested in involvement but lack information or opportunity. And some APTA members are vocal about their disagreement. As a member organization, the APTA gets power through the united energy, collaboration and cooperation of its members. Unfortunately, it is easier to talk about bringing a herd of cats together than to actually get that done.


Disagreement is not automatically a bad thing, but the Physical Therapy profession needs to be careful how it manages criticism and judgement. For the APTA to be fully effective, its members must be united and committed towards a common vision and goal. There are a lot of camps and silos in Physical Therapy, we must not let completing interests or territorial squabbles get in the way of the betterment of all. While we seek to push each other to be the best we can be, we must always strive to build each other up rather than tear each other down.


Unfortunately, the later is only all too common in physical therapy and one need look no further than social media at any of the many infamous “Twitter wars” filling the feeds of students and clinicians alike. Dr. Dunn knows this and I believe she would like to see less judgement within the profession of Physical Therapy.

Recently I observed a respected PT share about an intervention she has had success with on Twitter. Within minutes she was criticized for using a technique that had poor evidence, and that her use of lower quality evidence to justify the intervention was inappropriate. This scenario is all too common on PT Social Media.  There is a need and a place for collegial discussions. As is often said “iron sharpens iron” and we do need to challenge and push each other to be better. But there is a limit. Is discussion on social media truly for the benefit of the profession, or is it merely to satisfy the ego, or to feel the thrill of the debate? If the answer is either of the latter I would suggest saving your comments for a private group chat.


Sharon Dunn and APTA leadership dare to guide the Physical Therapy profession into a future of a transformed society. The question is do we have the courage to follow, and the willingness to put in the effort and cooperate, at times putting aside judgement in order to achieve the vision of a society transformed.