Physical Therapy

Telehealth in Physical Therapy: How (& Why) It Works

Telehealth in physical therapy is creating more accessibility for patients and saving money for everyone (including clinics).

Telehealth in physical therapy has quickly become a popular alternative to traditional in-person treatment sessions. This has certainly been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced healthcare providers to adopt a more remote-friendly practice. And yet, telehealth is a relatively novel concept in the physical therapy space, so there are some misconceptions about what it is, how it works, and whether or not it’s effective.

That’s why, today, we’ll explore two approaches to telehealth and go over five reasons why physical therapists (PTs) and clinics should explore adding this approach to their practice.

How does telehealth in physical therapy work?

Telehealth allows clinics and PTs to work with patients remotely, often through a video-based platform. While the concept of remote care is still fairly new to the world of physical therapy, the results are promising. In a small study published in the National Library of Medicine, scholars looked at self-reported satisfaction among 3,883 telehealth sessions. Of that group, 94% of patients were satisfied with their virtual session, with 92% saying they would attend another.

It’s important to recognize there are really two categories of telehealth:

  • Fully remote, where all meetings with a PT are done through video calls
  • Hybrid, where patients have regular in-person meetings with a PT but check in remotely between visits (either on a live video call or by staying connected with their PT through a digital health platform)

There are advantages and disadvantages to both models. SWORD Health, for example, offers a completely virtual experience so companies can save money on healthcare plans for employees. Individuals can also seek fully remote treatment and will likely find the ease of access, instant feedback, and affordability of remote plans enticing.

However, we feel that the hybrid format is the best use for telehealth in physical therapy. This approach allows your patients and PTs to establish the much-needed human connection, and you have all the benefits of tech in your corner, too. These lead to more accessibility to treatment, more affordable plans, and potentially faster recovery times. Plus, as COVID-19 forced many practices to adopt a hybrid approach, studies are finding that it can be effective in getting patients more positive outcomes overall.

Imagine, for example, someone is recovering from hip surgery, and their mobility is limited. With a hybrid approach, a PT would be able to meet with this person once and create a treatment plan that reduces the total number of follow-up visits. Whereas a PT might have recommended three in-person sessions per week in traditional rehabilitation treatments, they could now make a plan for one session each week, as long as the patient routinely completes their home exercise protocols (HEPs).

Between visits, the patient records these exercises on a shared platform, such as Exer Physio, which sends data about their progress to the PT for analysis.

With that in mind, let’s look at five concrete reasons you should consider combining telehealth in your physical therapy treatment plan.

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5 Reasons to combine telehealth with physical therapy

1. Make treatment options more accessible to your patients

Many physical therapy patients find it difficult to get themselves to an in-person session depending on the severity of the injury, their distance from the clinic, and the patient’s means of transport (for example, taking the bus vs. taking a car would change the amount of time required for a single session). Telehealth gives these patients more accessibility to treatment plans.

And this sophisticated software doesn’t require specialized equipment; these platforms are available to patients via any smartphone, tablet, or device with a camera. This gives every patient an added level of accessibility to treatment without completely foregoing the element of human connection in traditional physical therapy plans.

2. Reduce the risk of physical therapist burnout

Physical therapist burnout is a serious problem and has grown worse over the past few years with the global pandemic. And it’s not a cheap problem, either. In fact, it’s costing clinics roughly $4.6 billion per year in the United States from “related physician turnover and reduced clinic hours attributed to burnout.”

So where does telehealth fit into all this?

Some clinics and PTs have learned the hard way that new technology doesn’t always translate to easier working conditions. When software is difficult to integrate and tedious to operate, it can do more harm than good to a PT’s workday.

But don't dismiss the whole concept of telehealth in physical therapy just because you've struggled with platforms that weren't built with PTs in mind.

When you’re using the right tool, everything — including the daily working conditions of PTs — has the potential to be improved. In the words of physical therapist Justin Dudley:

Telehealth has grown significantly over the past couple years and looks like it is here to stay. For some clinics, this has been an easy transition, but for others it has been a headache. The best way to not let telehealth increase stress levels in your clinic is to make sure you have efficient and effective programs in place. Exer helps by keeping the patient engaged, while delivering effective interventions and collecting pertinent patient outcome data. Don’t let telehealth stress you out, reduce patient outcomes or create a billing headache. Get your systems in place.”  - Justin Dudley, PT, DPT, SCS, Cascade Sports Injury Prevention & Physical Therapy LLC

At the end of the day, the combination of flexibility in scheduling, accuracy in data collection, and automated follow-ups actually help with the more tedious aspects of a PT’s professional responsibilities.

3. Gather consistent (and reliable) data

In the last section, we briefly mentioned how telehealth platforms could streamline the process of documentation and data collection. This is a point that merits special attention because it has such large implications for a patient’s recovery outcomes. Most telehealth physical therapy apps are able to measure a person’s at-home exercises with smart sensors or with video input from any device with a camera.

Exer Physio, for example, allows patients to complete HEPs from home without the need for complicated technology. Instead, patients in recovery can complete exercises using any smartphone with no sensors or added hardware. A patient would simply open the app, point the camera toward themself, and complete their exercises.

The app then checks patients for form/sets/reps and automatically documents the data for each exercise.

The data collected by the software is stored in the patient’s profile, which a PT can routinely access to monitor the patient’s progress. This is a major breakthrough in remote physical therapy because it means PTs can track which exercises a patient is struggling to complete (or whether that patient is completing their HEPs at all). This empowers PTs to create data-driven recovery plans tailored to their patient’s real-time progress.

4. Reduce costs for your patients and your clinic

In a perfect world, money wouldn’t be a factor when it comes to getting people the treatment they need for recovery. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Fortunately, outpatient telehealth options leverage technology to make treatment more efficient and, thereby, more affordable for both clinics and patients.

For example, traditional in-person visits can be expensive, ranging from $30 with insurance (depending on the insurance company) to an average of $125 without insurance per session. If you need three physical therapy sessions per week with a PT for recovery, you’re looking at $360/month if your sessions are covered by insurance.

Fully remote alternatives vary in cost and can sometimes offer more affordable solutions. Agile Virtual PT, for example, costs $70/session without insurance, which is significantly lower than the in-person averages. That said, many fully remote options can be just as expensive as in-person alternatives. Luna is a good example of this. They’re a 100% on-demand service where each session costs $125 if you’re paying out of pocket. But there are still major benefits for this approach, as patients don’t need to commute to a clinic, make arrangements for childcare, or choose appointments that aren’t aligned with their weekly schedule.

A hybrid approach, on the other hand, is more cost-effective for both patients and clinics alike.

For patients, transportable/remote tech removes the need for as many in-person visits while still delivering the same consistency of care. Imagine how much a patient would save if they could reduce the number of sessions from multiple in-person visits/week to just one visit, as long as they consistently complete their HEPs and send that data to their PT.

Second, this flexibility allows PTs to take on more new clients, which brings more revenue into the clinic. If PTs can reduce the number of in-person visits with other patients, they’ll clear up more bandwidth for new ones.

5. Improve your patients’ positive outcomes

This is the biggest selling point for telehealth in physical therapy: it’s been shown to be just as effective as traditional in-person rehabilitation programs across a range of injuries. Some studies even suggest that telehealth leads to better outcomes for patients than in-person visits. And it’s not hard to see why.

The biggest obstacle to successful recovery is a lack of consistency and follow-up since PTs can’t be there every day to check on patients. But telehealth platforms allow you to automate certain functions, such as how Exer Physio sends daily reminders to patients to complete their HEPs. This holds patients accountable to complete their exercises as they progress through treatment. And unlike when patients simply practice their HEPs in isolation, physical health platforms can monitor their form and let their PT adapt their treatment plan according to their progress.

Telehealth for physical therapy doesn't mean losing the human touch

Telehealth is an exciting advancement in the world of physical therapy. This technology is still relatively new, and we're just scratching the surface of what it can do. But the results we see so far indicate this is here to stay, so every patient feels more closely connected to their PT, and every PT has the support from intuitive and reliable software.

The good news is you don’t have to wonder what telehealth looks like in action when you can see it yourself. Book a demo of Exer Physio today to see how a digital physical therapy platform works and how it can improve patient outcomes.

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