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Benefits of Remote Physical Therapy

Filed under: Benefits

Telehealth has proven to be a life saver – quite literally – since the start of the pandemic. It is defined as the use of electronic-based communication to provide healthcare information and services – typically through an audio-visual connection. It generally requires patients to have an email address and access to a computer or device equipped with a video camera and microphone.

One of the latest adoptions within the telehealth delivery system is physical therapy (PT). Though the data is new, studies of remote PT appear promising. A recent study published in the National Library of Medicine found that 94 percent of patients who engaged in 3,883 telehealth sessions were pleased with the results, and 92 percent said they would attend another.

There are two ways to receive physical therapy via telehealth:

  1. Fully remote – All PT sessions are conducted via video. The advantages of fully remote treatment include easy accessibility, no travel time and, in many cases, these sessions are less expensive.
  2. Hybrid – A combination of regular in-person sessions and remote check-ins between visits via video call or through a digital health platform. This approach leverages both the personal touch and technology to assess data for faster recovery times. For example, a treatment plan of three in-person sessions per week could be replaced with one session a week with check-ins associated with completing home exercise protocols (HEPs).

Some of the conditions that can be treated virtually with a physical therapist include postoperative care, chronic pain management, balance, and cancer rehabilitation. The following are some of the benefits of utilizing telehealth for remote physical therapy sessions.

Access. Remote PT allows for flexibility in scheduling, since patients don’t have to contend with issues related to transportation, childcare, or even taking several hours off of work to attend an appointment. Moreover, patients are more likely to engage in sessions when in the comfort of their own home.

Mobility. It can be physically difficult, and even painful, for PT patients to commute to an in-person session (e.g., walking to and climbing stairs to ride a bus or underground subway), especially for those with a severe injury.

Automatic data collection. Many telehealth PT apps can measure and collect data pertaining to the patient’s at-home exercises. They are equipped with smart sensors and/or record video sessions, the data of which can be reviewed in real time or later by their practitioner. A PT app can monitor patients for proper form, number of sets and repetitions, automatically record and store the data, and even schedule automated follow-up sessions.

Real-time data analysis. When recorded PT data is stored in the patient’s electronic health record (EHR), the therapist can access and analyze the data on his own timeframe, rather than having to be available for the session. Easy access to historical data can help the therapist gauge patterns (if the patient struggles to complete certain exercises, or avoids them altogether) and monitor the patient’s progress. This allows physical therapists to create data-driven recovery plans and customize them based on real-time progress.

Environmental perils. Another advantage of the at-home session is that a therapist has the opportunity to observe the patient’s living environment (stairs, items stacked on the floor, furniture too close together, etc.). If he observes factors that may put the patient at risk for a fall or exacerbate her condition, he can make safety recommendations to reduce those risks – and advise what to do should she have an accident.

Better outcomes. Remote PT has been shown to be just as effective as traditional in-person visits and, in some cases, can lead to better outcomes. One of the biggest obstacles to successful recovery is the lack of consistency and follow-up, therefore remote sessions engender a higher level of compliance. Since it is both convenient and time saving to log on for an appointment, patients are less likely to skip sessions or avoid scheduling them, leading to more positive results.

Reduce costs. Outpatient telehealth options leverage technology to make treatment more efficient and therefore more affordable for both clinics and patients. Less travel and wait times give patients more time to engage in PT, allowing them to have more sessions with a reduced time commitment. Remote PT sessions are generally charged a reduced fee, so a patient has both the time and money available to commit to their therapy plan for a quicker recovery.

Increase volume. Remote PT and recorded sessions, which can be reviewed at any time, allow physical therapists to take on more new clients and increase their revenues.

Practitioner care. The constant pace of in-person sessions can be exhausting, which has led to a serious trend of physical therapist burnout. This trend has worsened during the global pandemic. In fact, therapist turnover and reduced clinic hours that are attributed to burnout have reduced PT revenues in the US by approximately $4.6 billion a year.

PTs Increasing Role in Primary Care

The reduced time commitment empowered by remote PT has given therapists more time to support other healthcare services. Specifically, physical therapists – in an emerging role as extended scope practitioners – are expected to help augment the projected physician shortage (at least 100,000 over the next 10 years) in the US. Extended scope practitioners are physiotherapy clinical specialists who have undergone extra or specialist training, such as orthopedics, advanced manual therapy, advanced rehabilitation, or injection therapy.

In this role, an Extended Scope Physiotherapist (ESP) can provide triage services and help diagnose and treat patients with musculoskeletal disorders. This can help decrease wait times for patients seeking care. Moreover, studies show no difference in the accuracy of clinical diagnostics between physical therapists and physicians in an orthopedic setting, and no reported adverse events among patients first seen by physical therapists who identify conditions for referral. While the trend is growing, for now there has not been widespread adoption of PTs operating in an ESP role.

For that matter, remote physical therapy is also in its infant stages. It is being utilized more frequently in settings where there is a backlog of cases, such as military and veterans’ healthcare. In the private insurance sector, the practice is still being tested with regard to implementation standards, policy barriers, and billing fees.

Note, too, that PT telehealth services are not available everywhere. It may, in fact, be more prevalent in rural areas than large cities, where it is easier for practitioners to conduct sessions remotely than have patients visit an onsite clinic. Also, not all insurers cover telehealth, particularly in the physical therapy space. Like other areas of remote healthcare services, it is a growing field, and as time allows for more study and collection of data, it is likely to yield lower costs and improved health outcomes.

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