By Heidi Jannenga, PT, DPT, ATC, co-founder and chief clinical officer, WebPT.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, only 2% of physical therapists were providing telehealth consultations. Since then, telehealth has evolved into an integral part of the rehab therapy industry. This was no easy feat, as physical therapists have long been left out of telehealth.
According to WebPT’s 2021 State of Rehab Therapy report, 44% of therapy professionals reported using videoconferencing or virtual meeting software for the first time in 2020, and 40% reported using telehealth software for the first time. As interest in remote services continues beyond initial pandemic lockdowns, our entire industry needs to flex and embrace new technology. Here’s what to know.
The rise of telehealth
The transition to telehealth has brought countless benefits to physical therapy (PT) providers, along with a few challenges. While it’s true that telehealth will never replace hands-on treatment, it is an extremely promising alternative method of care delivery—and a true game-changer for the industry. In fact, our research has found that 9 in 10 therapy professionals have patients showing interest in telehealth services. This is no surprise, since telehealth offers the convenience that today’s patients want.
Telehealth allows PTs to reach a much wider range of patients than they would otherwise be able to treat. Many patients live in remote areas or do not have the time to travel to a clinic, making telehealth an ideal alternative. It also expands access to care for patients who might otherwise never receive PT treatment. This is extremely important, since 90% of those who could benefit from PT never receive it. At the same time, telehealth supports revenue diversification to safeguard clinics against future crises.
Another advantage of telehealth is how it allows physical therapists a new view into their patients’ lives and to learn how to provide the best help possible. For example, PTs can now see a patient’s home and gather clues regarding their environment, which helps them provide more customized treatment and advice. For example, do they have stairs in their home, are there transitions from hard flooring to carpet, or do they live alone?
Finally, PT and OT have been shown to be beneficial for those who have suffered severe COVID-19 cases, especially those who are struggling with muscle and respiratory weakness. These patients are able to receive the help they need through telehealth without putting others at risk. Also, a 2022 JAMA study shows that “telehealth encounters for chronic conditions had similar rates of follow-up to in-person encounters for these conditions.” Altogether, we can expect telehelath to play a greater role in managing ongoing conditions—including those best addressed with physical therapy.