The COVID-19 pandemic forced us all to reevaluate nearly every aspect of our lives. From the way we received and administered healthcare, to the way we shopped and ate, to even how we purchased toilet paper. Some pandemic trends may have died in 2020, but remote physical therapy seems to be here to stay.
But what is remote therapy? Is it good for patients? And what does it mean for me and my practice? A new approach to physical therapy may seem daunting at first, but in this article we’ll discuss the unique benefits and challenges of remote physical therapy. By the end of this article, you’ll be closer to understanding if remote physical therapy is right for you and your practice.
In this article, we will cover the most common benefits and challenges of remote physical therapy:
What is remote physical therapy?
Remote physical therapy refers to any process where a patient receives care from a remote location, typically via phone or video-conferencing. Remote medical care in general is often referred to as telehealth. While telehealth may seem like a new development, telehealth was first widely used in the US in the 1960s by NASA, as a way to remotely provide medical care to astronauts.
With modern advances in technology, telehealth is getting a second wind. The traditional approach to physical therapy requires patients to visit a clinic to obtain treatment and therapeutic instructions from professionals. Of course, this became impossible during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many healthcare professionals scrambled to find remote solutions to care for their patients. Thankfully, the widespread availability of video-conferencing platforms allowed telehealth to quickly gain popularity among clinicians and patients alike.
Today, there are a variety of telehealth solutions— from Zoom to highly specialized remote platforms. Some remote physical therapy platforms offer exercise libraries, others instant messaging and online scheduling. There is a lot to choose from and many more still in development. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on the broad benefits and challenges of remote physical therapy that will apply to even the most basic of telehealth solutions.
What are the benefits of remote physical therapy?
Remote physical therapy is a unique way to interact with your patient, which results in unique benefits for you and your patient. Here are some of the top benefits of telehealth in physical therapy:
One of the essential benefits of telehealth is the ability for patients to attend appointments without traveling long distances. Patients who live in the suburbs or outlying areas can quickly get in touch with a doctor miles away from them. This also means that clinicians who implement remote physical therapy solutions can increase their potential patient reach.
And while eliminating the need for travel saves time for able-bodied patients, it also increases access for less able-bodied patients too. Patients who are rehabilitating from a major injury or recovering from surgery may struggle to adhere to the recommended number of in-person visits. Patients who may ordinarily need to coordinate with a friend or family member to drive them to appointments are freed of such constraints with remote care.
In addition, less travel saves many additional expenses for patients, allowing them to invest more money in their care. Based on data analyzed from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey from 2006 through 2017, Altarum estimated that the economic impact of travel and wait time for patients is $89 billion annually. That’s a lot of money! Clinics can also save a lot of overhead costs by adopting telehealth, and you can focus more on care delivery rather than managing waiting rooms and check-in procedures.
Enhance Patient Outcome through Increased Patient Engagement
In general, increased patient engagement results in better patient outcomes . For example, studies have shown that patients who adhere to their prescribed exercises perform better at achieving their goals and demonstrate a greater increase in physical function that those who do not . But did you know that patients enrolled in remote physical therapy were more likely to adhere to a home exercise program compared to patients participating in traditional in-person care? It’s true!
You might be wondering why patients perform better at home than in-clinic, but you have to remember telehealth affords you a unique insight into your patient’s daily life. We’ve all had our news interrupted by a child or pet running into a new anchor’s home office. People live busy lives, and it’s understandable for a remote visit to be interrupted. While this may seem like a downside to remote physical therapy, it can actually be a key factor in improving your patient’s outcome.
With remote physical therapy you may get a better understanding of your patient’s limited workout space or the distractions that prevent them from completing their prescribed home exercise plans. By seeing these barriers firsthand, you can better understand and discuss them with your patient, working together on solutions to break down barriers to compliance.
Patients are more engaged when they feel involved and in control of their health care. With telehealth, patients gain more direct control of their care plans and treatment progress. This helps therapists better understand each patient’s wants and needs to create an even stronger treatment plan. Even something as simple as an online calendar where patients can book a time slot with you at whichever time is best for them can improve patient engagement.
What are the challenges of remote physical therapy?
Now that we’ve discussed the benefits of using remote physical therapy, let’s discuss some of the most common challenges of delivering physiotherapy through telehealth.
You get limited results
Let’s face it: when it comes to remote care you’re not sure how to interact with your patients without using your hands. We get it. It’s part of every physical therapist’s training to physically assess patients. Switching to remote only visits can be daunting as everything becomes a subjective, naked eyeball measurement. However, studies have shown that remote physical therapy visits are just as reliable in assessing pain, swelling, range of motion, strength, balance, and gait than in-person visits . While you might not be able to take your usual hands on approach with patients, you’ll still be able to successfully treat them from afar.
And if you’re worried about missing out on subtle body language or facial expressions (like a wince), you aren’t alone. These cues have been your cornerstone to understanding your patient’s comfort and, most importantly, their pain. However, there are ways to circumvent their absence in a remote setting. After all, if you can’t figure out how your patient is feeling by looking at them, you can just ask. And ask often! You just may find that remote physical therapy visits improve communication between you and your patient.
It’s another program to juggle
There’s more to physical therapy than just seeing your patient, and your job doesn’t end when the visit ends. Intake and outtake forms, patient progression, medical notes and prescription are all important requirements to successfully provide care to patients. Unfortunately, more often than not, these tools are spread across several platforms.
It’s understandable to hesitate to adopt yet another platform to provide care for patients. Some days, it may feel like all you do is toggle between a dozen tabs to get anything done. However, with the growing interest and demand for remote physical therapy, more sophisticated remote physical therapy platforms are emerging. There is even a service that handles everything you need in one platform.
Telehealth gained huge momentum during the pandemic, and now it’s here to stay. Studies have shown remote physical therapy to be a valid, efficient, and effective way to treat patients.
Providing care through a remote method provides unique benefits for you and patients. Remote physical therapy increases accessibility for patients and enhances patient outcomes through increased patient engagement. While there are some challenges to remote physical therapy, they can be overcome and turned into additional strengths.
Remote physical therapy is an exciting solution for modern healthcare problems and new platforms are emerging every day to reduce the number of challenges associated with telehealth. If you haven’t tried providing remote physical therapy, there’s never been a better time to start.
If you want to learn more about remote physical therapy solutions, contact ViFiVE and see if our specialized remote physical therapy platforms are right for you and your practice.