Putting Patients First: Man on a Mission

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All photos credit Eric Robertson

I first met Jerry Durham in Seattle during 2011 over a plate of sushi. At the time, I knew little about this guy beyond that fact that he liked the SF Giants ball club and owned a practice in San Francisco, and certainly didn’t know how honored I would be that his very first tweet ever was a tweet to me. As Jerry and I sat in the restaurant of the boutique Hotel Max, I could tell he was something different right away. He had passion. But, no one yet knew it. He was a man with a message, but one without a platform. That didn’t last long. Despite some early frustrations, Jerry persisted and has climbed and clawed his way into focus.

Fast forward to 2016, I sat down with Jerry outside of the Oakland-unique Bicycle Coffee for an espresso and to chat about the very recent, and very successful Patient Panel at the recent CSM conference. While chatting, he fielded business calls, did association nominating committee work, talked about qualitative research, and planned for upcoming conference talks. No longer is Jerry Durham one of PT’s best kept secrets!

If you’ve been on Twitter, listened to his podcast, or attended Graham Sessions in the last few years, Jerry is kind of hard to miss. He’s got a shtick, no doubt. He’s loud. He speaks on emotion. He doesn’t wait his turn. He wears nice socks, and drinks fine bourbon. But his game isn’t without substance, and his message is important, rooted in service and in relationship-centered care…and business…, and architecture…heck, it probably even includes relationship-centered bourbon drinking! Jerry is about listening to people, which is ironic given how often he likes to tell you what’s on his mind.

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The APTA CSM Patient Panel

So, Jerry found a couple patients, developing a friendship with one of them on Twitter, of course, and hosted them in Anaheim for CSM. When he discovered there was no funding for patients as speakers, Jerry appealed to the Women’s Health section board, who generously found a way to pay their expenses. Then, when Jerry got them on stage, he did something special: he stopped talking and listened. A great session was born.

I asked Jerry what it was that patients could tell us during their session that we didn’t already know. After all, most PT’s could tell you that patients should be at the center of their care. We’ve all seen challenging patients, we’ve heard similar things, we’ve all spent time getting patients to agree with our plan of care. So what was it that he thinks this session conveyed? “It’s about acknowledgment,” was his answer. As I listened to him tell the story of the session, I think it was about more than that. To understand, some background on the two patients is in order.

Patient A was someone who had suffered from chronic, severe pelvic pain for over a decade. While she ultimately found a partner in care (Sandy Hilton) that helped her, one poignant quote that came out during the session was,

“I couldn’t have gotten this bad without the help of PT.”


Patient B was a fifty-something person with cerebral palsy, who had tales of care from when she was young through her current later middle age. Not surprisingly, she had some grudges (maybe that’s too strong, some tales of less than awesome care), and tales of practitioners not being honest with her. From these two, lessons and golden nugget quotes abounded:

“…treatments were not done to me, they were done with me”

One called their PT their “Hope Dealer” (It was Sandy Hilton)

“Objectivity is great for many things, but subjectivity gets a bad rap, like it is the slightly dumber cousin of the thought process.”

“Patients with pain cannot imagine a future without pain. You have to draw it for them.”

“Don’t scare the crap out of your patients. Words matter.”

“It’s anti-helpful to make shit up.”

“Acknowledge your mistakes and foot-in-mouth moments. Current those moments with honesty to restore the relationship and trust.”

And from one student attendee on Twitter:

“This #APTACSM #patientpanel has GOT to happen every year, @JerryDurhamPT. Most valuable conference session I’ve attended as a #dptstudent.” — @Jocelyn_SPT.

Taken together, this all hints at something greater than simply acknowledgement. It reminds us that as a profession, we are no stronger than our weakest links. While the 12,000 CSM attendees might not be the problem (or maybe some of them are…who knows), there’s 150,000 more PT’s out there who might never go to CSM! (Cue tape from 2013 Oxford Debate when I said something almost the same thing.) Words matter. Patient relationships drive care. This session served as a poignant reminder of why we’re here and that communication skills are never truly mastered.

While my knowledge of CSM sessions certainly is not encyclopedic, I cannot recall another session that packed this punch and had the courage to put unplugged patients front and center as a celebration of their very existence. Unplugged? Jerry didn’t even know their stories ahead of time…only hints of them…he wanted to be surprised along with the audience.

Looking Ahead

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Jerry is already planning what’s next. Always the listener, he quickly moved from giggles to serious interest when I explained how qualitative research methods might be his friend in finding a more broad audience for his message. Jerry’s next mission: to speak across sections and groups and divisions of the profession. He wants to break down barriers of internal professional communication for important, cross-cutting competencies (my words, not his). He still has a message to deliver, and he’s certainly got an audience now, but this Jerry Durham is just getting on a roll! He and his 99,040 tweets are practically a media company. “We can’t keep preaching to the choir,” he warns.

I think Jerry Durham deserves some serious hat tips and bourbons raised in his honor. Well, done, my friend. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

Written by

Educator, speaker, coffee and Physical Therapy geek. @PTThinkTank founder. Kaiser Permanente, Northern California @KPNorCalPT Graduate PT Education Director

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