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.
Changing health outcomes through tech
Virtual services aren’t merely a bandage that carried us through the pandemic—they’re a powerful solution that’s here to stay. Therapists must reframe their perspective on how they use telehealth and shift how they view care delivery—and their views must be reflected in their business practices, processes, and marketing efforts.
This includes tracking patient outcomes to secure the ability to deliver telehealth and assert PT’s value in healthcare overall. CMS has invited PTs, OTs, and SLPs to collect and share data proving that telehealth therapy is a viable treatment option. The APTA, WebPT, and others are currently advocating for the passage of legislation that would ease restrictions on telehealth coverage under the Medicare program.
Looking ahead, technology will play an even bigger role in telehealth through remote therapeutic monitoring (RTM). For example, Keet Health (recently acquired by WebPT) is changing the PT game with their digital health platform that brings patients and providers together. Using wearable devices and software, providers can monitor remote care and increase plan-of-care adherence, all while optimizing outcomes and revenue sources. The introduction of RTM codes has helped PTs manage and bill for remote care, allowing this form of treatment to be fully leveraged to benefit both patients and providers. RTM is here to stay—and it’s the future of PT.
Winning over skeptics
Many PTs who were unsure at first have now openly embraced telehealth with both arms. For example, Steve Windwer, CEO of Bay State Physical Therapy originally thought this mode of service delivery belonged on the fringe of care. But now he thinks that telehealth should be a treatment option available to all patients, regardless of where they live. Steve has observed that patients of all ages like the experience, his no-shows have decreased, and the cost of care has been reduced. Countless other PTs have had near-identical experiences as Steve, proving how valuable telehealth is.
We need to make sure CMS and other payers continue to recognize the value of telehealth for rehab therapy. Therapists must also stay informed and have a voice in the policy guidelines for telehealth moving forward. I suggest visiting connectwithcare.org to stay informed and learn how to get involved in telehealth decisions. By coming together to take action, we will be able to continue to make a meaningful impact with this powerful solution.