Data Quality: Garbage In = Garbage Out

Measuring and objectifying observations and phenomena. Numbers. Data. These are the cornerstones of analytics. The presentation and appearance of (apparent) objectivity. Whether in research, health care policy, economics, business, or clinical practice, data is important.

The data doesn’t lie.

But, sometimes the people that interpret it do. Not that they mean to. It’s not done on purpose (except when it is). So, yeah, unfortunately, the numbers can lie. And, they will lie to you if you are not conscientious about assessing them more deeply.

“What gets measured, gets managed.” Peter Drucker

Data Quality

Questions of why this works, or, maybe, more importantly, “does this work as proposed? Does the explanatory model make sense?” are not inherently built into the evidence based approach. Yet, these questions are vital to integrating and understanding outcomes research, while evolving our theoretical models. Such a task mandates metacognition and critical thinking. Failure to critical assess the quality, and potential meaning, of data, will result in improper conclusions.

The evidence hierarchy is sorted by rigor not necessarily relevance –EBP and Deep Models

But, the questions and issues surrounding data quality and interpretation transcend assessing the literature within the context of the evidence based hierarchy. Much like the research literature, the data collected, analyzed, and utilized everyday warrants critical appraisal. It all requires assessment; data encountered inside and outside the clinic, data utilized for decision making and understanding. The concepts of scientific inquiry should be wielded routinely, including assessment of quality, source, and limitations of the numbers. Only then, can proper interpretation and subsequent decision making occur.

Is it accurate?
Is it representative?
Where did the numbers originate?
What do the numbers actually represent?
What conclusions can or can not be concluded from a data set?

The evidence based practice hierarchy is concerned mainly with questions of “what works?” and “what is effective and efficacious?” These are necessary, important, big questions. But, the term “evidence” as utilized by most clinicians and researchers is focused mainly on randomized clinical trials, systematic reviews, and meta analyses of randomized control trials. Outcomes based research. This is a necessary and obvious step forward from purely observational, experienced driven clinical practice and education. Despite the obvious importance of experience (or more accurately deliberate practice) in clinical decision making, analysis based on experience or clinical observation only is prone to errors such as confirmation bias and convenience. Clinical observation alone is limited in it’s ability to ascertain phenomena such as a natural history and regression to the mean. And thus, this issue is related not only to data quality, but proper data interpretation. Understanding data quality assists in assessing “what works”, but also in tackling the complex question of “why does it appear to work?” Both questions are inherent to, and reliant upon, the quality of data.

Numbers, Data, and Objectivity

In attempting to objectively measure the world, has the potential accuracy and quality of data been forgotten? Overlooked even? A number seductively presents the appearance of objectivity and accuracy, but does not guarantee it. Big Data provides an excellent example of data quantity with relatively overlooked quality. Astounding data-sets through avenues such as social media and search engines afford researchers and large companies the opportunity to analyze data-sets that would literally explode your lab top. For example, in 2008-2009, based on web search data Google Flu Trends more accurately and quickly predicted and modeled flu outbreaks than the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Well, until 2012-2013 when it wasn’t so accurate, over estimating peak trends. In big data are we making a mistake? Tim Harford explores the scientific and statistical problems still present (even when the size of a data set requires it to be stored in a warehouse): 

But a theory-free analysis of mere correlations is inevitably fragile. If you have no idea what is behind a correlation, you have no idea what might cause that correlation to break down. One explanation of the Flu Trends failure is that the news was full of scary stories about flu in December 2012 and that these stories provoked internet searches by people who were healthy. Another possible explanation is that Google’s own search algorithm moved the goalposts when it began automatically suggesting diagnoses when people entered medical symptoms…

Statisticians have spent the past 200 years figuring out what traps lie in wait when we try to understand the world through data. The data are bigger, faster and cheaper these days – but we must not pretend that the traps have all been made safe. They have not…

But big data do not solve the problem that has obsessed statisticians and scientists for centuries: the problem of insight, of inferring what is going on, and figuring out how we might intervene to change a system for the better.

Measurement Matters

Now, just because it can be measured, does not mean it should be measured. Measurement alters behavior. And, the change is not always as envisioned or desired. As soon as a goal is set to alter a metric, incentives apply. This concept transcends clinical care. It applies to business, management, and clinician behavior. Enter the cobra effect.

The cobra effect occurs when an attempted solution to a problem actually makes the problem worse. This is an instance of unintended consequence(s).

So, is the goal to change that specific metric only?  Or, is the actual goal to encourage specific behaviors that appear to directly affect, or are correlated with, that metric. Regardless of the goal, care must be taken in defining success. This requires a clear definition of what is measured and why. Again, deep analysis of data quality and interpretation are necessary to properly interpret results of process changes. Due to the appearance of objectivity in the presentation of numbers, it is easy to make inaccurate or far reaching conclusions. This is especially true when care is not taken to assess all the components of the data:

What does the data actually represent?
Who or what measured it? Who or what entered it?
How was it initially assessed and subsequently interpreted?
What other data needs to be considered or measured?

Now, even with reliable and accurate data input, inaccuracy can occur. The wrong conclusions can be “output” because of the misinterpretation regarding what the data is representing or signifying. Wrong numbers = wrong analysis = wrong conclusion = wrong interpretation = misguided application.

Steer away from subjectivity

The complexity of even the simplest data sets is astounding. Ever present are questions such as: Is the data valid? Does the data represent the assumed construct or principle? What potential bias is involved? Is it reliable between people; between subsequent measurements? Is it actually measuring what we think it’s measuring? Can it answer the questions we are posing? Measured and presented data is rarely as simple as a concrete number.

The attempted objectification and simplification of subjective, individualized, complex phenomena such as happiness, satisfaction, engagement, or pain may be tragically flawed. Commonly, over reaching conclusions are based on assumptions of accurate and/or complete representation. The data presented is merely a measurement, a number produced via the tool chosen.

A tool misused produces data that’s unusable

That tool may, or may not, accurately convey the construct it was initially designed to represent. In the case of patient report questionnaires, the individual filling out the tool will always be biased; influenced by the environment, their expectations of what should be conveyed, influences from others (explicit and implicit), as well as complex incentives depending on their needs, goals, and expectations. Further, most data encountered on daily basis, including clinical outcome measures (whether patient performance or patient report), is not collected in controlled environments with explicit processes. Bias will always affect reporting and recording. Questions of the accuracy, reliability, and validity apply not only to the tool, but also to the person recording the measurement. It quickly becomes complicated. The Modified Oswestry Disability Index never seems so messy when presented as a straight forward percentage.

Compare the stark contrast between how an outcome measure is collected within a research trial vs. everyday clinical practice. In order to minimize both error and affects of bias, outcomes in a trial are collected by a blinded assessor. A standardized set of directions is utilized, with a pre-defined process for administration and measurement. But, even in more controlled, direct data collection environments, what is being measured and what that actually illustrates, is not straight forward. Representation is not always linear. Even in randomized, tightly controlled, double blind studies bias and flaws are present. This does not inherently make the data useless. Leaps of logic need to be recognized.

If data is sloppy enough it is beyond useless. It’s harmful.

Why? Because, unreliable, variable data that is not truly measuring or representing the phenomena one assumes will ultimately lead to inaccurate conclusions. Regardless if the data is positive, negative, or neutral it is misleading.

How? Because, the data itself can not be representative of what we think it is measuring, purely by the the fact that the data itself is unreliable, overly variable, and “sloppy.” Further, if the assumption is made that a measure represents a certain construct, but it actually does not, it has no validity. Without reliability, validity is unobtainable. Without validity, reliability is misleading.

Data Quantity vs. Data Quality

So, should the focus remain on quality or quantity in data? Both. Is more data always better? Well, that depends on the quality. But, what is quality data? Quality is a relative term. Collecting, analyzing, or using data is only part of the equation. Once collected, questioning validity, reliability, representativity, and relevance is necessary. In the cases when data has already been collected and potentially presented, it’s time for some serious skeptical inquiry. Understanding what data actually represents and illustrates assists in proper critical appraisal. Proper critical appraisal allows proper interpretation. Proper interpretation is the foundation for  effective utilization. Less controlled data collection environments do not necessarily produce unusable data, and in fact can be quite useful in the realm of health services and care delivery models. Yet, the conclusions drawn on effects, mechanisms, and efficacy need to be tempered. Focus on understanding exactly what a data set can and can not illustrate given the data collection environment and design and metrics.

Unreliable and invalid data in, wrong conclusions out. Always. Any accurate representation will be by chance alone. But, in these instances, the probability of attaining an accurate representation will often be less than chance. Limits are always present, and can not be avoided, but understanding the limits of the data assists in drawing conclusions that are the least wrong. While the data itself is important, what is done with the data, and why, is almost more important. And, these principles apply whether you are assessing your clinics “outcomes” or tracking disease outbreaks with big data. Focus on improving the quality and accuracy of data collection on the front end. Train those measuring, collecting, and entering data. Improve analysis and inquiry on the back end. In addition to asking “where’s the data?” we should be asking “where did that data come from?” and, “what does it actually illustrate?”

Be skeptical. Garbage in = garbage out.

Precision in Language

Language is obviously important as words are the basis of explicit communication. As is such, specificity in language and word definitions is vital to interaction. But also, specificity in meaning is required for accurate scientific research. Thus, terms are often operationally defined in studies. It is an attempt to clearly communicate how the researchers are defining, utilizing, and investigating a construct. Hopefully, ensuring appropriate interpretation and application of results while bundling theoretical constructs through explicit definitions.

I’m no expert in linguistics, philosophy, or even language, but I think this is an important professional topic. Now, admittedly, physical therapists deal with complex physiologic systems and phenomena. Some concepts can elude specific definitions physiologically and linguistically. Pain is a perfect example.

The lived pain experience is an emergent, individually experienced phenomena dependent on a myriad of interacting physiologic, psychologic, environmental, social, cultural, and linguistic components. It’s not merely resultant from nociception nor tissue damage or even injury. Yet, the presence of such complex systems and phenomena should not preclude striving for specificity of language. Vagueness does not help us. Investigating form, meaning, and context of language assists in research, education, and patient interaction. Luckily, the International Association for the Study of Pain created a taxonomy, and is attempting to more robustly define terms related to the painful experience. The list includes hyperalgesia, hyperesthesia, noxious stimulus, peripheral sensitization, central sensitization, and neuropathic pain among others. Some terms, such as allodynia (“pain due to a stimulus that normally does not provoke pain”), are considered “clinical terms” and purposefully absent of proposed mechanisms. Other terms, such as nociceptive stimulus (“an actually or potentially tissue-damaging event transduced and encoded by nociceptors”), are mechanistically more specific.

As a more concrete, basic science example, what would result if 100 physical therapists & 100 physicists  were charged to define strength, power, acceleration, stability and balance? How many definitions? How much similarity would they display?

@Jerry_DurhamPT has a hypothesis…


101 definitions.

One, exact definition (and likely a formula) from the 100 physicists. And, likely 100 separate, but similar, definitions from 100 physical therapists. These words have explicit definitions and equations within the realm of physics (classical mechanics). As Erik Meira asserts robust, specific definitions are absolutely necessary for science:

I’m not trying to get metaphysical here but we must define our terms in order to be scientific…Poorly defined statements are inherently not scientific. Just because it’s published does not make it science.

Specificity and discipline in language is a necessary first step. It is required for accurate discussion and collaboration within research, clinical practice, and between professionals. This includes other professions (and not just healthcare). But, unfortunately, appropriately defining and subsequently understanding definitions does not account for, nor address, how other healthcare professionals, disciplines, patients, and society perceive certain words. What are their definitions? As an example, lets explore the word “prevention.”

Prevention: the action of stopping something from happening

Within healthcare and physical therapy, true prevention by definition, is kind of a misnomer. But, the health care system, patients, and consumers utilize the term prevention differently. Usually, the concept of “prevention” is actually used to mean “risk reduction.” Thus, the “functional definition” within the context of healthcare and patient interaction is slightly altered. What is actually meant by ACL injury prevention is reducing the likelihood of an ACL tear. Epidemiology provides some insight…

In epidemiology, the absolute risk reduction, risk difference or excess risk is the change in risk of a given activity or treatment in relation to a control activity or treatment. It is the inverse of the number needed to treat. -Wikipedia

In epidemiology, the relative risk reduction is a measure calculated by dividing the absolute risk reduction by the control event rate.

The relative risk reduction can be more useful than the absolute risk reduction in determining an appropriate treatment plan, because it accounts not only for the effectiveness of a proposed treatment, but also for the relative likelihood of an incident (positive or negative) occurring in the absence of treatment. -Wikipedia

Currently, there are no singular interventions to fully prevent the occurrence of most diseases and injuries in normal life situations. In being alive, there is always risk.

So what to do? If other disciplines such as mathematics, physics, or psychology have defined a certain term or construct, I propose it necessary to understand and utilize that definition accurately in professional discourse. The terms above, which originate from classical mechanics, immediately come to mind. We should challenge and operationally alter definitions from other fields only if strong data and logic warrant modification. Further, in research, discussion, and education the most specific, accurate definitions should be sought after. If unknown, questions should arise, discussion should ensue, and operational definitions provided. Science requires precision in language: exact terms. Lastly, the patient and consumer’s definition of certain words needs to be ascertained. Where feasible, more appropriate explanations should be provided to improve public and professional understanding of terminology. Communication is strained, and collaboration limited, if we are essentially “speaking different languages.”

A physical therapist does not need to be an engineer, but understanding the language of mechanics allows for true discussion between fields. It opens the door for increased collaboration.

A physical therapist does not need to be a psychologist, but knowledge of psychological constructs allows for evolved ways of conceptualizing and treating patients. It lends itself to improved research and clinical practice.

A physical therapist does not need to be a linguist, but explicitly defining words is necessary. It helps us understand form, meaning, and context.


We need specificity and discipline in our language. Combining our expertise with the language and concepts from other disciplines fosters the ability to more robustly communicate and subsequently collaborate. This allows us to identify the grey, and step into uncertainty. For then we can truly start to explore the chaos, slowly illuminating specificity. Vagueness, after all, is beyond the limits of logic and reason.

Metacognition, Critical Thinking, and Science Based Practice #DPTstudent

Metacognition can be considered a synonym for reflection in applied learning theory. However, metacognition is a very complex phenomenon. It refers to the cognitive control and monitoring of all sorts of cognitive processes like perception, action, memory, reasoning or emoting.

A recent #DPTstudent  tweet chat dealt with the concept of metacognition broadly (list of links), but more specifically discussed the need for critical thinking in education and clinical practice. Most agreed on the dire need for critical thinking skills. But, many #DPTstudents felt they had no conceptual construct on how to develop, assess, and continually evolve thinking skills in a formal, structured manner. Many tweeted they had never been exposed to the concept of metacognition nor the specifics of critical thinking. Although, most stated that “critical thinking” and “clinical decision making” were commonly referenced.

What’s more important than improving mental skill sets?

Thinking is the foundation of conscious analysis. Yet, even with a keen focus on assessing and improving our thinking capacities, unconscious processes influence not only how and why we think, but what decisions we make, both in and out of the clinic. We are humans. Humans with bias minds. Brains that, by default, rationalize not think rationally…

Everyone thinks; it is our nature to do so. But much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed or down-right prejudiced. Yet the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated. – Via

Need a Model

Mary Derrick observed previously in her post that the words critical thinking and clinical decision making are often referenced without much deeper discussion as to what these two concepts entail or how to develop them. Students agree that critical thinking and sound clinical decision making are stressed in their pre-professional education. But, all levels of education appear to grossly lack formalized courses and structured approaches. The words are presented, but rarely systematically defined. The actual skills rarely practiced and subsequently refined. Students thus lack not only exposure and didactic knowledge of metacognition, critical thinking, and decision making, but also lack experience evolving these mental skills.

Critical Thinking Wheel via Diane Jacobs @dfjPT 

Need to teach how to think

Alan Besselink argued a scientific inquiry model to patient care is, from his view, “the one approach.”

There is, in fact, one approach that provides a foundation for ALL treatment approaches: sound, science-based clinical reasoning and principles of assessment, combined with some sound logic and critical thinking.

One approach to all patients requires an ability to gather relevant information given the context of the patient scenario. This occurs via the clinician’s ability to ask the appropriate questions utilizing appropriate communication strategies. Sound critical thinking requires the clinician to hold their own reasoning processes to scrutiny in an attempt to minimize confirmation bias if at all possible. It also requires the clinician to have a firm regard for the nature of “normal” and the statistical variations that occur while adapting to the demands of life on planet earth.

Philosophically, I agree. It appears the question “what works?” has been over emphasized at the potential sacrifice of questions such as “how does this work?”  “why do we this?” and “why do we think this?”

Unfortunately, the construct of evidence based practice assumes the user applying the EBP model is well versed in not only research appraisal, but critical thinking. The structure of evidence based practice overly relies on outcomes studies. It lacks a built in process for integration of other sources of knowledge as well as the applicable question of “does this work as theoretical proposed?” The evidence hierarchy is structured and concerned with efficacy and effectiveness only. Many will be quick to point out that from a scientific rigor standpoint the evidence hierarchy is structured as such, because other forms of inquiry (basic physiology, animal models, case reports, case series, cohort studies, etc) can not truly answer questions “what works?” without significant bias. Robust conclusions on causation can not be made via less controlled experiments. And this, of course, is true. In terms of assessing effectiveness and efficacy in isolation, the evidence hierarchy is appropriately structured.

But, the evidence hierarchy does not consider knowledge from other fields nor basic science, and thus by structure explicitly ignores plausibility in both theory and practice. To be fair, plausibility does not necessarily support efficacy nor effectiveness. So, it is  still imperative, and absolutely necessary, to learn the methodology of clinical science. Understanding how the design of investigations affects the questions they can truly answer precedes appropriate assessment and conclusion. Limits to the conclusions that can be drawn are thus explicitly addressed.

Need the Why

Because of the focus on evidence based practice, which inherently (overly?) values randomized control trials and outcomes studies over basic science knowledge and prior plausibility, students continue to learn interventions and techniques while routinely asking “what works?” Questions of “how did I decide what works?” “why do I think this works” and “what else could explain this effect?” also need to be commonly addressed in the classroom, clinic, and research. Such questions require formalized critical thought processes and skills.

These questions are especially applicable to the profession of physical therapy as many of the interventions have questionable, or at least variable, theoretical mechanistic basis in conjunction with broad ranging explanatory models. This is true regardless of effectiveness or efficacy. In fact, it is a separate issue. Physical therapy practice is prone to the observation of effect followed by a theoretical construct (story) that attempts to explain the effect. A focus on outcomes based research perpetuates these theoretical constructs even if the plausibility of the explanatory model is unlikely. In short, while our interventions may work, on the whole we are not quite sure why. @JasonSilvernail‘s post EBP, Deep Models, and Scientific Reasoning is a must read on this topic.

The profession suffers from confirmation bias in regards to the constructs guiding the understanding of intervention effects. In addition, most, if not all, interventions physical therapists utilize will have a variety of non-specific effects. These two issues alone highlight the need for critical thought in order to ensure that our theoretical models, guiding constructs, and clinical processes evolve appropriately. And, further, to facilitate appropriate interpretation of outcomes studies.

It is not “what works?” vs. “why does this work?” Instead, a focus on integrating outcomes studies into the knowledge and research of why and how certain interventions may yield results is needed. This requires broadening our “evidence” lens to include physiology, neuroscience, and psychology as foundational constructs in education and clinical care. Further, research agendas focused on mechanistic based investigations are important to evolving our explanatory models. Education, research, and ultimately clinical care require both approaches. Interpretation, integration, and application of research findings, be they outcomes or mechanistic, necessitates robust cognitive skills. But, do we formally teach these concepts? Do we formally practice the mental skills?

So, now what?

There appears to be an obvious need, and obvious value, to learning how to think. But, that is just the start. The necessity of learning to think about thinking is required to improve the specific skill of critical thinking. The understanding and application of evidence based practice needs more robust analysis. Growth of critical thinking, metacognition, and an evolution of evidenced based to science based practice produces the foundation for strong clinical decision making. The call for evidence based medicine to evolve to science based medicine focuses on ensuring clinicians interpret outcomes studies more completely. It appears to put strong emphasis on increased critical thinking and knowledge integration.

Does Evidence Based Medicine undervalue basic science and over value Randomized Control Trials?

A difference between Sackett’s definition [Evidence Based Practice] and ours [Science Based Medicine] is that by “current best evidence” Sackett means the results of RCTs…A related issue is the definition of “science.” In common use the word has at least three, distinct meanings:

1. The scientific pursuit, including the collective institutions and individuals who “do” science;

2. The scientific method;

3. The body of knowledge that has emerged from that pursuit and method (I’ve called this “established knowledge”; Dr. Gorski has called it “settled science”).

I will argue that when EBM practitioners use the word “science,” they are overwhelmingly referring to a small subset of the second definition: RCTs conceived and interpreted by frequentist statistics. We at SBM use “science” to mean both definitions 2 and 3, as the phrase “cumulative scientific knowledge from all relevant disciplines” should make clear (by jennifer). That is the important distinction between SBM and EBM. “Settled science” refutes many highly implausible medical claims—that’s why they can be judged highly implausible. EBM, as we’ve shown and will show again here, mostly fails to acknowledge this fact.


What to do?

1. Learn how humans think by default: Biased
2. Learn the common tricks and shortcuts our minds make and take
3. Understand logical fallacies, cognitive biases, and the mechanics of disagreement
4. Meta-cognate: Think about your own thinking with new knowledge
5. Find a mentor or partner to critique your thought processes: Prove yourself wrong
6. Critique thought processes, lines of reasoning, and arguments formally and informally
7. Debate and discuss using a formalized structure
8. Think, reflect, question, and assess
9. Discuss & Disagree
10. Repeat

Science Based Practice…

1. Foundations in basic science: chemistry, physics, physiology, mathematics
2. Prior plausibility: “grand claims require grand evidence”
3. Research from other relevant disciplines from physics to psychology
4. Mechanics of science: research design and statistics
5. Evidence Based (outcomes) Hierarchy

Questions lead, naturally, to more questions. Inquiry breads more inquiry. Disagreement forms the foundation of debate. And thus, Eric Robertson advocates for embracing ignorance

Ignorance is not an end point. It’s not a static state. Ignorance isn’t permanent. Instead it’s the tool that enables one to learn. Ignorance is the spark that ignites scholarly inquiry.

Ignorance: the secret weapon of the expert.

Growth is rarely comfortable, but it’s necessary. And, that’s a lot to think about….


A Practical Guide to Critical Thinking
Logical Fallacies
Critical Thinking Structure
List of Fallacies
List of Cognitive Biases
Science Based Medicine
Clinical Decision Making Research (via Scott Morrison)
Clinical Decision Making Model
Thinking about Thinking: Metacognition Stanford University School of Education
Occam’s Razor
The PT Podcast: Science Series
Understanding Science via Tony Ingram of BBoyScience
I don’t get paid enough to think this hard by @RogerKerry1 (his blog is fantastic)

Agree to Disagree the Less Wrong Way

No, you’re not entitled to your opinion
. Well, so says lecturer in philosophy Patrick Stokes

I’m sure you’ve heard the expression ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion.’ Perhaps you’ve even said it yourself, maybe to head off an argument or bring one to a close. Well, as soon as you walk into this room, it’s no longer true. You are not entitled to your opinion. You are only entitled to what you can argue for.”

A bit harsh? Perhaps, but philosophy teachers owe it to our students to teach them how to construct and defend an argument – and to recognize when a belief has become indefensible.

Usually, agreeing to disagree ends a discussion. But, agreeing to disagree in order to facilitate true debate should actually initiate the discussion. Attack the message, not the messenger. It’s not personal.

And, that’s the point. Rigorously critiquing the message, ideas, and reasoning is not insulting the person. It’s the foundation of the evolution of the scientific process after new data or theories emerge. Heated, passionate debate can (and I would argue should) be followed by laughter and delicious beverages amongst colleagues (and even rivals!). These fiercely disagreeing colleagues can even be friends.

You are safe, but your ideas are not

But, we are dealing with humans. Humans with complex emotions, previous experience, and beliefs. Brains that are prone to cognitive biases and logical fallacies, even when explicitly on the lookout for them. We are a messy, social, complicated, emotional bunch. The online experience evolved to Web 2.0 “the collaborative internet” (now even Web 3.0) resulting in the proliferation of two way communication and information exchange on the web. The user is actively involved in collaboration and user generated content. Interaction with both content and people has become an integral, regular facet of the online experience. Blogs, blog comment sections, Facebook, and micro-blogging platforms such as Twitter are a routine part of our social as well as professional lives.

So, how can we foster real debate and discourse that is focused on the issues? It’s simple (kind of, in theory), but it’s not easy. Philosophically, absolute truth is a hard, if not impossible, concept (wikipedia truth). In discussions regarding both science and clinical care, the aim is not to be right (per se). But, rather, to approach a state of less wrong. Such a concept recognizes the evolving nature of our understanding in light of new evidence and insight. The goal thus becomes a proper analysis of the position or conclusion presented including the evidence (from basic science to outcomes studies) but also the logic, reasoning, and prior plausibility supporting or refuting the stated position. This approach applies to online discussion, article analyses, professional discussion, and education at all levels. The disagreement hierarchy outlines the strength, and relative validity, of a counterargument. It provides a formal guide for framing discussions.


Graham's Hierarchy of Disagreement


Why is all of this important?

The online disinhibition effect describes how interactions online may actually be more prone to errors in disagreement and discussion. Whether on blogs, Facebook, or Twitter  endless examples of poor debate are present. Ad homineum attacks (you have no experience in this), complaints of tone (you’re so negative), and down right insults (you’re an idiot). Gross illustrations of both logical fallacy and bias (we’ve all got it, except for me of course).

Sometimes, the lower levels of the disagreement hierarchy are actually true. An ad hominem argument highlighting an individuals lack of expertise, knowledge, or experience may be factually accurate. But, while true in and of itself, it does not necessarily invalidate or refute or counter argue the position presented. For example, a cranio-sacral therapist may argue that I have “no experience” performing cranio-sacral therapy. While true, that does not address my position that cranio-sacral therapy’s explanatory model is indefensible, regardless of the perceived or studied effectiveness of the treatment. Thus, even if it works, it does not work as theoretical presented. And, that is vitally important, and often missed construct, when discussing clinical care. Mary Derrick, @Mary_PT2013, previously addressed the use of clinical reasoning and critical thinking from a DPT student’s perspective.

Thinking, Fallacies, and Biases

Unfortunately, an understanding of the mechanics of debate and the basic fallacies of logic is not sufficient. In order to discuss effectively at a high level we also must possess critical thinking skills. We need to understand and recognize logical fallacies and cognitive biases. We need to understand the basic mechanics of science, mathematics, and statistics. We need to understand what certain studies can and can not tell us. We need to understand prior plausibility. We need to think about our thinking (metacognition).

Even more unfortunate is the lack of teaching students how to think. “Schools of thought” and “gurus” continue to dominate our profession as well as public discourse (see Dr. Oz and the muriad of health and fitness fads). Students, practitioners, and even researchers indoctrinated in evidence based practice volley outcomes based RCT’s attempting to illustrate their positions. Professionals argue with each other about tone, experience, and doing “whatever works.” As Jason Silvernail, DPT, DSc observed in his post EBP, Deep Models, and Scientific Reasoning

When I see my colleagues approaching alt-med treatments asking for outcome evidence, I get justifiably nervous – are they just one RCT away from believing in energy medicine? What we should be focusing on is the absolutely indefensible theory here – it’s scientific reasoning that will help us here, not statistics. Let’s never forget that.

Specifically as the profession of physical therapy and more generally in science and public discourse the conversations needs to continue beyond “lets agree to disagree.”

Debate and arguments need to occur

There are beliefs, models, terms, and ideas that permeate our profession, the health care system, and culture that need abandoning. Can you think of any? Understanding the what and why of clinical care and scientific discussion from a Science Based Medicine perspective:

Good science is the best and only way to determine which treatments and products are truly safe and effective. That idea is already formalized in a movement known as evidence-based medicine (EBM). EBM is a vital and positive influence on the practice of medicine, but it has limitations and problems in practice: it often overemphasizes the value of evidence from clinical trials alone, with some unintended consequences, such as taxpayer dollars spent on “more research” of questionable value. The idea of SBM is not to compete with EBM, but a call to enhance it with a broader view: to answer the question “what works?” we must give more importance to our cumulative scientific knowledge from all relevant disciplines.

If only it ended there. What about that uncomfortable feeling? Defensiveness, feeling offended, stomach churning. These feelings and thoughts are a result of your mind, your brain struggling with two conflicting ideas or ideals. Cognitive Dissonance

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort experienced when simultaneously holding two or more conflicting cognitions: ideas, beliefs, values or emotional reactions. In a state of dissonance, people may sometimes feel “disequilibrium”: frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety, etc.

Some studies illustrate that when presented with evidence conflicting their current position or understanding, humans actually become more entrenched in that belief or view point. So, without a focus and understanding on these principles of debate, disagreement, logic, and fallacy discussion poses the potential to be detrimental. The debate disintegrating into personal attacks and emotional based offensive points as each person drifts deeper into their current view point. Each party fighting uncomfortable cognitive dissonance, and actually confirming previously held beliefs. Critical thinking and metacognition are needed. Patrick Stokes again summarizes:

The problem with “I’m entitled to my opinion” is that, all too often, it’s used to shelter beliefs that should have been abandoned. It becomes shorthand for “I can say or think whatever I like” – and by extension, continuing to argue is somehow disrespectful. And this attitude feeds, I suggest, into the false equivalence between experts and non-experts that is an increasingly pernicious feature of our public discourse.

So, please, let’s agree to disagree.

Comments On: Building Community & Discourse Through Conversation

Often, intense dialogue emerges in the comments section of blog posts. In my opinion, the discussion enriches the original post. Comments add depth to the post, and benefit the reader. Further, it allows a post to remain dynamic over time as knowledge improves or reasoning changes. A guest post on @MikeReinoldBlog entitled Trigger Point Dry Needling for Lateral Epicondylitis resulted in over 220 comments. At one point, Mike even closed comments. Later, in a decision I respect and agree with, he re-opened the comments section. That post is rich in various content, lines of reasoning, and debates on various aspects of science, physical therapy research, pain, and mechanisms of manual therapy. A true resource. On PT Think Tank, our most commented on post  OsteopractorTM Not now, Not ever currently has 201 total comments. In  Comments Off on PT Podcast @ErikMeira states:

Do I not want the feedback? Do I not want to foster discussion? Not at all. The answer is simple: I don’t have the time to manage it. When I have allowed comments in the past I was bombarded with spam posts. This required constant attention to weed out the crap… The other problem is trolls. Most comments are either blind emphatic agreement or blind emphatic disagreement. Then you get into name calling and weird irrelevant attacks. No thanks. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Look herehere, and here for some much more thought out reasons for not allowing comments on blogs.

I agree that moderation can be difficult. Spammers and trolls are a constant, annoying problem. Spam widgets and spam reducing practices exist. See 7 Ways to Reduce Blog Spam for ideas. For those not familiar, @ErikMeira hosts two fantastic podcasts, PT Podcast (@PTPodcast)and PT Inquest. On his site, he published a fantastic 5 part Science Series.

Once a site decides to have comments open the author of a post has a couple of options:

1. Allow the commenting community to discuss
2. Address critiques or questions directly
3. A combination

For moderation, a policy statement can guide decisions to un-approve a comment(s) utilizing set standards as a reference. I uphold that heated discussion and debate eventually lead to progress, are extremely helpful to readers, act as real time peer review, and illustrate when people are being ridiculous. The more people comment, the more obvious their intellect, intent, and true value (or lack of) is displayed. Comments allow for multiple participants and viewpoints to present and discuss issues. Often, connections are made to other concepts not explicitly explored in the initial blog post. For a reader, following the discussion can engage analytical processes, allow them to follow arguments, and challenge ideas. There is value for the author in the for of feedback, questions, and a forum for further clarification. There is value for the commenting to engage with the author and each other in an archived discussion. There is also value to the reader. Personally, I have extracted tremendous intellectual challenge and benefit from reading through a blog post with a engaged comments section.

Although a fear of negative comments is present, allowing individuals to post dissenting views illustrates enriches the post. Even without any moderation the community of commentors can come to the rescue in the case of poor logic, bad reasoning, misinterpreted references, or just plain nastiness.Comments and the ensuing discussion give blogs their true power. In best case scenarios, they are an example of real time, open source peer review and academic-clinical discussion. We can discuss and collaborate around the world. SomaSimple is a prime example of an open forum. Many view SomaSimple negatively, but they have presented a moderators consensus on the Culture of SomaSimple and Information for Guests which includes the Disagreement Hierarchy. One of the resounding themes of the forum is “Here you are safe, by your ideas may not be!”

A prime case example of “comments on” is the contraversial post OsteopractorTM Not now, Not ever. To date, the post has garnered more than 200 comments. The dialogue was not terse and rather intense at times. Overall, I think the comments section benefits those who read and engage PT Think Tank. I attempted to respond to most comments  and critiques. The commenting community dialogued further. Eric Robertson moderated comments that were blatantly attacking individuals or grossly off topic. In total, less than 10 comments total were moderated (deleted or discarded). One comment by a single individual and all the rest by another. So, overall 2 users and less than 5% of all comments required moderation.

Comments? Comments, anyone? Anyone?

#AcutePT helps ICU save $818,000 per year!

In a recent post So, you think you can walk? I outlined some of the evidence, rationale, logic, and decision making involved in acute care physical therapist practice. I discussed the important of conceptualizing and studying physical therapists impact “beyond function.”

An article from entitled Providing Physical Therapy in ICU Helpful highlights exactly this concept. The study discussed will be published around March in Critical Care Medicine. An e-published ahead of print version is already available: ICU Physical Rehabilitation Programs: Financial Modeling of Cost Savings. The benefits of technology allow us to begin preliminary discussion and analysis!

The authors modeled cost savings utilizing best-case and most conservative estimates of length of stay reductions, upfront costs, and other factors based on  existing published data and their specific quality improvement project. The quality improvement project undertaken at Johns Hopkins University within the medical ICU included full time, dedicated physical therapists and occupational therapists in the medical ICU. The vision:

A multidisciplinary team focused on reducing heavy sedation and increasing MICU staffing to include full-time physical and occupational therapists with new consultation guidelines.

In total, the early rehabilitation program cost the hospital approximately $358,00 more per year than the previous standard of care. So, what did the results say? Within 1 year, ICU length of stay decreased by an average of 23% while medical ICU admissions increased by over 20%. An $818,000 per year net savings after accounting for start up costs (approximately $358,000) was observed. Conclusions:

A financial model, based on actual experience and published data, projects that investment in an ICU early rehabilitation program can generate net financial savings for U.S. hospitals. Even under the most conservative assumptions, the projected net cost of implementing such a program is modest relative to the substantial improvements in patient outcomes demonstrated by ICU early rehabilitation programs.

The “actual experience” investigation is actually published in Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation: Early physical medicine and rehabilitation for patients with acute respiratory failure: a quality improvement project. The study lead, Dr. Dale Needham, MD, PhD, passionately advocates for the importance and necessity of physical therapists and early mobility within ICU’s for individuals with critical illness. Independently, the results of that quality improvement study are also profound:

Results: Compared with before the quality improvement project, benzodiazepine use decreased markedly (proportion of MICU days that patients received benzodiazepines [50% vs 25%, P=.002]), with lower median daily sedative doses (47 vs 15 mg midazolam equivalents [P=.09] and 71 vs 24 mg morphine equivalents [P=.01]). Patients had improved sedation and delirium status (MICU days alert [30% vs 67%, P<.001] and not delirious [21% vs 53%, P=.003]). There were a greater median number of rehabilitation treatments per patient (1 vs 7, P<.001) with a higher level of functional mobility (treatments involving sitting or greater mobility, 56% vs 78%, P=.03). Hospital administrative data demonstrated that across all MICU patients, there was a decrease in intensive care unit and hospital length of stay by 2.1 (95% confidence interval: 0.4-3.8) and 3.1 (0.3-5.9) days, respectively, and a 20% increase in MICU admissions compared with the same period in the prior year.

Conclusions: Using a quality improvement process, intensive care unit delirium, physical rehabilitation, and functional mobility were markedly improved and associated with decreased length of stay.

  • Early mobility in acute care. It’s important.
  • The physical therapist in acute care. A vital part of the care team.
  • Looking beyond function to conceptualize and understand the impact of the physical therapist? Necessary.

So, you think you can walk? #AcutePT

All you do is walk people! Are you going to walk Mrs. Smith? Are you getting Mr. Johnson up? You don’t have to think in acute care!

In my opinion, the role of the physical therapist in acute care hospitals has some of the most profound & robust reasoning and logic. In addition, clinical research evidence continues to illustrate the positive benefit of physical therapists within acute hospitals for individuals who have had total joint replacements to the most critically ill individuals in intensive care units. The Physical Therapy Journal special issue on Rehabilitation for People with Critical Illness inspired me to discuss acute care practice in more depth. Despite the complex, fast paced environment and short lengths of stay, physical therapists continue demonstrate value in regards to patient outcomes, hospital throughput and flow, and risk reduction. The acute care environment is bursting with opportunity for physical therapists to enact meaningful change through innovative practice models and health care changing research.

Yet, the above are common statements and questions the acute care physical therapist must routinely face. Unfortunately, the skills, knowledge, role, and contribution of the acute physical therapist is misunderstood not just by other healthcare professionals within and outside the hospital environment. Equally as important, is the misunderstanding of physical therapist colleagues who practice in other settings.

In the editorial Acute Care Physical Therapist Practice: It’s Come a Long Way physical therapy journal editor Dr. Rebecca Craik, PT, PhD, FAPTA comments:

“Should Physical Therapists Practice in Acute Care Settings?” That was the 2007 topic for the Rothstein Debate, an annual event held at APTA’s conference and exhibition and established to honor PTJ’s esteemed Emeritus Editor in Chief Jules M. Rothstein (1945–2005).

 Dianne Jewell, PT, PhD, FAPTA, was moderator. Anthony Delitto, PT, PhD, FAPTA, and Charles Magistro, PT, FAPTA, argued for and against the need for physical therapists in the acute care setting. On one side, the physical therapist was characterized as a sophisticated decision maker with a breadth of knowledge that spanned medicine and physiology; on the other side, the physical therapist was characterized as just another clinical staffer who “dragged” patients down the hall.

The session was filled to capacity with approximately 300 people; the tension was palpable, the debaters articulate—but tempers were kept in check. The debate was declared a draw. I still recall my surprise that day at learning about the paucity of research on acute care practice:

1. The clinical decision-making process touted as complex by the “pro” team had not been described in the literature.

2. Responsive outcome measures had not been agreed upon.

3. Clinical trials had not been conducted to compare different interventions in that setting.

4. Cost-effectiveness had not been examined.

Today, in my opinion, I feel asking whether physical therapists belong in acute care shows a gross misunderstanding for the history and future of the physical therapy profession generally and the role of the acute care practioner specifically. Where is the recognition and assessment of the logic, rationale, and research behind acute care practice? My hope is that this debate topic was purposefully chosen to expose physical therapists to the acute care practice environment. Dr. Craik contends it inspired action. Acute care research and investigations since that debate have grown tremendously in both number and quality.

What are the physical therapist’s roles in acute care?

The obvious role of the physical therapist is to examine and evaluate a patient within the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (ICF Framework) to determine current and future need for rehabilitation, appropriate discharge location, equipment needs, and current functional level. Specific impairments of body structures and function, activity limitations, and participation limitations can be identified. Physical therapists can then also prescribe mobility and movement recommendations which I like to term “movement medicine.” This conceptualization of acute care practice, while accurate, is overly simplistic. For many, this is where their understanding and conceptualization of #acutePT ends.  In fact, it only represents a minute fraction of the effect and role of PT.

Beyond Function…

The profound effect that physical therapists can have in the acute care environment extends far beyond function and mobility. When analyzing the acute care practice environment from the outside many often ask if specific physical therapy interventions are effective from a functional, patient outcomes standpoint. While valid, this narrow scope does not fully encompass acute care practice.

The role and effect of the physical therapist’s presence, input, and treatment (generally and intervention content specifically) needs to be analyzed from multiple perspectives. Various metrics need to be assessed. Outcomes from multiple levels of the care and delivery process from the individual patient to the specific unit to the hospital to the entirety of the healthcare system need to be analyzed. This includes not only function and functional improvement, but current and future costs of an episode of care. No doubt, patient performance and function including future functional status and time to accomplishment of functional milestones are vitally important. But, length of stay, readmission rate, proper/safe discharge location, and reduction of medical complications are all important outcomes to patients, hospitals, and the healthcare system.

Physical therapist’s presence, guidance, and treatment can actually reduce the risk of adverse medical events including pneumonia, blood clots, readmissions, and longer lengths of stay. They may have an impact on hospital costs, future medical costs, overall healthcare costs and morbidity. These are important outcomes metrics. Taking a function only approach to acute care physical therapist practice and research may be detrimental. For example, a study may show that the functional outcome of a patient population treated by a physical therapist resulted in minimal improvements in function at hospital discharge. But, what if the same study illustrated that the treatment drastically lowered the incidence of pneumonia. Is that an outcome of interest to patients, physicians, hospitals, and health care administrators? A retrospective study illustrated physical therapists make accurate and appropriate discharge recommendations. More interestingly, when actual discharge location did not match the therapist recommendation the odds of readmission were 2.9 times higher than when the actual discharge matched therapist recommendation.

Physical therapists act not only as treating clinicians, but valued consultants (or a consulting service) in the acute care hospital. In a qualitative study of acute care practice the authors discuss acute care physical therapist practice in the evolving healthcare and hospital environment

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, the number of hospital days of care for patients of all ages was 226 million in 1970 compared with only 166 million in 2006. Similarly, the average length of stay was 7.8 days in 1970 and 4.8 days in 2006. Today’s hospital environment is one where patients are admitted for procedures, invasive medical management, and surgical interventions while longer-term healing, recovery, and rehabilitation occur elsewhere.

As a result, questions have been raised regarding the relevance of physical therapist intervention and management, commonly associated with the more lengthy rehabilitation phase of care, being delivered in such a fast-paced setting. The responses of the physical therapists interviewed in the study by Masley and colleagues suggest something else is occurring. The themes of this article and previous studies regarding the role of the physical therapist seem to demonstrate that physical therapists have evolved to becoming valued professional consultants who provide a unique, essential perspective, rendering them integral contributors to the acute care team. Today’s physical therapists specialize in evaluating and managing the patient’s functional mobility needs and, within that scope, serve as both consultants and effective transitional care providers.

Communication and Advocacy

Inter-professional communication is an ongoing necessity within the acute care hospital. Physical therapists are routinely interfacing with nurses, physicians, case managers, social workers, and other hospital staff. Acute care physical therapists are positioned to find and fight for allies outside the physical therapy profession. Emergency medicine and critical care physicians are recognizing the skills, expertise, and contribution of physical therapists. From coast to coast, they are advocating for physical therapists within and outside hospital walls resulting in development of innovative clinical programs and lines of research. Physical therapists are routinely a part of trans-disciplinary programs to improve patient care and outcomes. Through their physical location within a hospital setting, acute care physical therapists can leverage knowledge, skills, and expertise to promote and advocate for the entire profession of physical therapy.

Where’s the evidence?!?!

Recently, on twitter, a #DPTstudent tweeted that acute care had the least amount of supporting research. One of the reasons for this perception, I believe, is that much of the evidence supporting physical therapist practice in acute care is published in non-physical therapy specific journals such as Critical Care Medicine, Chest, and the Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehab. For example, Critical Care Medicine published an entire supplemental issue on Intensive Care Unit-Acquired Weakness (ICU-AW). But, the Journal of Acute Care Physical Therapy and Cardiopulmonary Physical Therapy Journal are still fantastic resources (by jennifer). As I outline in the Leveraging Technology Series post Selection of Content, we must read outside of the physical therapy specific literature. So far, I have discussed some of the rationale, which is vital, but what has research illustrated?

Total Joint Replacement
A study investigated the effect of immediate postoperative physical therapy on length of stay for total joint arthroplasty patients illustrating that “Isolated PT intervention on POD 0 shortened hospital LOS, regardless of the intervention performed.” A study published way back in 1993 illustrated that receiving weekend treatment by a physical therapist correlated with decreased length of stay following joint arthroplasty.

Emergency Department
I have written before about the emergence of physical therapists in the emergency department. Preliminary data illustrates potentially improved patient satisfaction with care and shorter wait times when physical therapists are present in the ED. In addition, physicians practicing in emergency medicine have recognized the expertise and contribution of physical therapists in a variety of conditions including painful problems, musculoskeletal conditions, dizziness, and overall mobility/safety/discharge determination. An article in PTJ discussed the development of this novice practice venue.

Intensive Care Units
Intensive Care Units cater to patients with the most serious injuries and illnesses, most of which are life-threatening and need constant, close monitoring and support from specialist equipment and medication in order to maintain normal bodily functions.”

Early mobility and physical therapy has been shown to be not only safe, but feasible in the individuals who require mechanical ventilation. A randomized control trial investigating early physical therapy and occupational therapy in critically ill mechanically ventilated patients concluded that not only was early physical therapy treatment safe and well tolerated early on in a critical illness course, but resulted in better short term functional outcomes and less delirium. Early physical medicine and rehabilitation for patients with acute respiratory failure: a quality improvement project  demonstrated with “hospital administrative data…that across all MICU patients, there was a decrease in intensive care unit and hospital length of stay by 2.1 (95% confidence interval: 0.4-3.8) and 3.1 (0.3-5.9) days, respectively, and a 20% increase in MICU admissions compared with the same period in the prior year” And earlier this year, a systematic review on early mobility in the intensive care unit was published.

Response Dependent Progression

Back to some of the original questions. Well, so what? All you are doing is helping people get up and walk around. Can’t a nurse assistant do that? In a study of mobilization level in a surgical intensive care unit it was found that physical therapists mobilize their patients to a higher level than nurses.  And, sometimes sitting ain’t easy. What appears simple procedurally often involves complex knowledge and decision making. A gentle manual technique may require a complex reasoning process and constant assessment of patient response. Similarly, in acute care the decision to sit up, stand, transfer, or ambulate requires the integration of physical therapy specific principles with knowledge of medical conditions, medical management, pharmacology, and pathophysiology. Mobility and therapy progression (within and between session) is based upon the principle of response dependent progression which necessitates integrating the previous knowledge with the patient’s current presentation/functional status while constantly monitoring physiologic status (vital signs), patient performance, and patient feedback (fatigue, shortness of breath, and other symptoms). The acute care physical therapist must assess and integrate complex information from various sources. Much of this information is dynamic in nature requiring constant integration and re-assessment…

So, you think you can walk?

Can Assumed Postures Help Chronic Pain?

I’m teaching a freshman seminar course this year at Texas State. It’s about introducing students to the university as well as the college learning environment and culture. I was prepping them for some interview and presentation assignments and stumbled across a fine TED Talk by Amy Cuddy about the importance of body language.

The information in this is fascinating. Basically, you can see significant, measurable changes in hormones simply by maintaining a posture for as little as two minutes. It doesn’t seem to matter if you actually feel powerful or weak, but if you hold the power poses, you increase testosterone and decrease cortisol. It also seems that subjects are better able to cope with stress and have superior results in job interviews following this 2-minute posture hold.

If the simple act of assuming a posture can alter the brain, I wonder if having patients in chronic pain can see a similar benefit. Power poses before therapy might just help take that edge off and allow more pain-free motion during a therapy session. Of course, this is just me postulating, but I wonder… Testosterone might not have an obvious connection to pain, but cortisol and resultant stress levels certainly could. Perhaps testosterone could somehow enhance self-efficacy, which is important for function in the face of chronic pain.

The Evolution of Learning, Knowing, & Finding in the Digital Age

photo of classroom by Max Wolfe

Knowledge, information, and intellect are fuzzy concepts. Knowledge may involve the ability to recall specific pieces of information. But, does knowing lead to intellect? The more information the better? And, what information is needed for intellect? Interesting questions, but definitely beyond my philosophical capabilities. Without a doubt these concepts have evolved in the digital age. An interesting piece entitled Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age  is worth a read.

In the past, there was an advantage (likely even an incentive) to “knowing” information, because “finding” information was slow, cumbersome, and time consuming. Think about performing a literature review prior to the internet. It was likely harder (both effort and time wise) to find facts, ideas, and concepts. Potentially, this may have lead to slower, more deliberate processing in the form of in-depth analysis and more critical thinking with reflection, analysis, and connecting to ensure strong knowledge recall.

With the advent of new technologies, and the ever increasing speed and ease of information transfer, the paradigm may have flipped. With the proliferation of the internet and search tools, finding information continued to become easier and faster (this does not address or speak to accuracy, validity, or utility of course). Taking the time to truly know, relate, and connect content was effectively de-incentivized as finding it became convenient beyond belief. Even Einstein was quoted as saying “It’s not what you know, it’s knowing where to find it.” For some information and procedures, this is absolutely true. Atul Gawande addressed this very concept in the book  The Checklist Manifesto (which is fantastic! check out this video summary).

But, do the manifestations of this paradigm shift have the potential to be devastating for students and learners, including clinicians, of all types? The incentive for laziness is present. Google search, “the abstract says…”, “so & so tweeted this.” One must consciously recognize the potential traps, and work hard to critically appraise, connect, reflect, and relate to information.

The same is true of evidence based practice. “Well, this article conclusion states X is good for Y.” “The systematic review recommends X for Y.” Now, I am not advocating against evidence based practice, just pointing out a potentially devastating short cut or pit fall. Without a conscious and attentive adherence to prior plausibility, principles of science, and critical thinking, we are all likely to fall victim to “citing the evidence” in this regard. Now, this really is a different topic, for a different time…

With the advent of Web 2.0 and social media technology information is pushed directly to you. For better or for worse, masters of technology and social media with large followings or broad connections have the power to proliferate ideas to large numbers of people, many of whom did not even seek this information. The term “viral” captures this concept accurately, as ideas or internet memes exhibit virus like tendencies. But, even small time social media users can have significant impact if the information they push is deemed useful by those that encounter it, and thus, pushed onward. And, viral growth is born.

The evolution of this technology may prove to be profoundly beneficial if utilized appropriately. People will encounter information in the form of Facebook status updates, tweet thoughts, blog posts, research articles, and news they did not even seek. Technology and social media including blogs, can be leveraged to not only encounter new information (most of which is not purposefully sought after), but to engage, connect, critique and more deeply understand. Both the author and the reader can benefit, as social media now allows the reader, or consumer, to engage via comments and replies. Learners armed with the power of new technology and the cognitive skills to appropriately use it can make a major impact.

In the future, I foresee the potential of these new technologies and paradigms fundamentally changing not just education, but the face of formal science and publishing. Jason Silvernail and I have discussed this before when discussing if industry standards were serving researchers, clinicians, and science. Building on that topic, Diane Jacobs at SomaSimple, recently posted a link to blog post Why Academic Papers are a Horrible Discussion Forum. These insights set the stage for how new technology and social media can be tools of meaningful change in the future of learning, knowing, finding, discussing, and learning.

This anonymous quote summarizes it best

Education means developing the mind, not stuffing the memory

Unfortunately, our education system at all levels seems on the cusp of  failing in this regard. Some of these technology tools, if not utilized appropriate, may have the potential to exacerbate the problem. But, as we have witnessed, technology has the potential to make big changes, for the better.

Can we use Twitter to #SolvePT

Recently, a new hash tag has emerged in the physical therapy twittersphere: #SolvePT. Selena, via the Evidence in Motion Blog, shared her thoughts in a post The Pulse of Physical Therapy. Dr. E of the Manual Therapist also briefly highlighted this new hash tag in a post.


Initially, discussions focused on financial issues of physician owned physical therapy services (POPTS), student loans, payment, and educational costs. But, today involvement and content was rich with various contributors and topics. Physical Therapist Twitter regulars such as myself (@Dr_Ridge_DPT), Larry Benz (@PhysicalTherapy) and @SnippetPhysTher were present. @PTThinkTank even tweeted a few insights. Other tweeps included:

Topics discussed today were extremely broad and covered many areas of practice:
  • Education: Cost, Length, Effectiveness, Organization
  • Clinical Education: Models, Need for change, Payment
  • Financial: Debt vs. Income, Payment by Setting, Incentives, Payment Models. You may seek Professional Financial Solutions if you are struggling with your financial liabilities.
  • Best Practice: Defining, measuring, incentivizing, and teaching
  • Outcomes: Which ones? How to Measure?
  • Value: Cost Savings, How to measure, How to communicate
A very interesting question that I took from the discussion was: Who is the physical therapy consumer or customer? I made the point that physical therapy has many consumers at various levels of the care delivery process. An individual receiving care from a physical therapist is an obvious and direct consumer. But, other customers of our services include referral sources, other health care providers, payers, hospitals, entities we work for, the health care system, and society as a whole. Our care, but also our knowledge or advocacy, can directly or indirectly affect these various stake holders.

Web 2.0 principles allow us to crowd source and brainstorm with a much wider audience; geographically, practice setting, and expertise. This hashtag will allow for the recording and analysis of a wide range of view points and ideas. We can follow the evolution of topics over time. This stream and  medium could be leveraged by larger, more formal organizations (are you listening APTA?) for idea generation  to guide future task forces and initiatives. In fact, some of the issues, solutions, and thoughts for future direction are solid. #SolvePT is already evolving into a task force.

My Insights and Thoughts

There was a lot of focus on “best practices” in physical therapy. Defining, measuring, communicating, and then teaching best practices is extremely challenging. Todd Davenport of @PacificDPTweet, made the observation that “best practice” is a moving target given the evolution of research, science, and understanding. I agree. Further, who defines best practice? I think we must look beyond a specific patient and episode of care when defining, analyzing, and teaching best practice. In addition, we must look at multi-level outcomes. For example, for an outpatient perspective we can not just look at the patient specific outcome of that episode of care, the time/number of visits, and it’s cost. That is a too narrowly focused frame of reference. We should broaden our lens, and our potential for impact. We need to also need to consider (and target?) recurrence, future health care costs, risk reduction for other medical conditions, and overall health/fitness. Cardiopulmonary fitness is maybe the most dramatic modifiable factor to prevent disease, morbidity, and mortality.

I brought up the topic of physical therapists in hospital intensive care units. Johns Hopkins performed a quality improvement project where they staffed 1 physical therapist for a 16 bed medical ICU. Their estimation is that by decreasing ICU length of stay and increasing patient mobility/function the hospital, and thus the health care system, saved an estimated 5 million dollars over a 1 year period. The internal investigation lead to the hospital staffing 2.2 full time physical therapists solely in a 16 bed medical ICU. This is a dramatic change in practice focused not on productivity or reimbursement, but on VALUE, risk reduction, and other broader outcomes.

Unfortunately, in discussing best practice no attention was brought to the actual content of current PT programs. In my opinion, pain science/physiology, basic neuroscience, critical thinking, philosophy of science, cognitive biases, and metacognition are vastly lacking from our curriculums.

The teaching and study of pain should be integral in all PT education, both didactic and clinical. We have neuromuscular, musculoskeletal, cardiopulmonary, and or medicine tracks in our programs. Why do we not have a specific pain track? Or, at least a focus and integration of neuroscience and pain physiology into our other courses? Regardless of practice setting, the majority of our patients will have a primary or secondary complaint of pain. Joe Brence, who blogs at ForwardThinkingPT, started an online petition regarding this exact topic. I recommend you sign it HERE.

In order to be “evidence based” (or more accurately Science Based) we need extensive training in the philosophy of science and critical thinking including prior plausibility, research design, and article analyses. To assume that students entering PT programs received such instruction as undergraduates is, to put it nicely, a huge assumption. How are we to make appropriate clinical decisions if we do not understand our inherent cognitive traps and biases? How are we to correct them, if we can not even recognize them? The skill of appropriately analyzing a single article based on design, statistics, and results in the context of plausibility, basic science, and the state of other literature AND THEN applying that to everyday clinical practice is what being a master clinician-scientist is all about. And, that is what we need to strive for. The title of Tamara Little and Todd Davenport’s recent editorial in the Journal of Manual & Manipulative Therapy sums it up quite nicely: Should we be expert clinicians or scholars? The answer is yes.

How do we generate results from this passion and discussion?

  1. How do you think we should #solvePT?
  2. What are the most pressing issues in education, payment, practice, and our evolution?
  3. How can we focus some of the general issues and proposed ideas into specific and concrete action; solutions!?

#SolvePT has been thought provoking. Hopefully, it will continue to grow. I foresee big potential in this type of interaction.