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What is the Future of Telehealth in Physical Therapy

Where is Telehealth Headed?

People are thinking about physical therapy in a new light as telehealth platforms have helped physical therapists practice by providing video and audio-conferencing options. New legislation and temporary payment exceptions from insurance companies have allowed people to experience telehealth services’ convenience—causing a sharp rise in demand.

But is this all sustainable? With multiple vaccines for COVID-19 in production and the nature of physical therapy, we’re wondering if this is a trend or a trademark. This article will explore some of the hottest topics so we can understand what the future of telehealth in physical therapy holds.

How the Pandemic Changed the Future of Telehealth

Telehealth services have always been the ugly duckling of physical therapy because, well, it is physical therapy for a reason. When it comes to rehab-therapy care, a physical therapist’s hands are their best tools. However, the pandemic has caused the future of physical therapy to accelerate at a rapid pace.

Telehealth has had a huge uptick this year, and it has some staying power. Physical therapy will be slower to adapt because of obvious therapeutic barriers, but patients feel more comfortable using technology for their visits. The future will undoubtedly hold a better mix of traditional physical therapy in tandem with telehealth services—which could help with better treatment adherence.

Even though companies such as MWTherapy had telehealth specific EMR and documentation templates before the demand shift, they were not widely used. Now, practice owners must be equipped with the proper tools for every telehealth platform because patients expect their physical therapist to provide options.

Rising Demand Across the U.S.

According to the CDC, in the first quarter of 2020, the number of telehealth visits increased by 50% compared to Q1 of 2019. And those numbers are even more impressive when you factor in only 7% of patients were completing telehealth visits for COVID-19 related concerns. Patients will only continue this trend, even in the physical therapy industry.

According to the law of diffusion of innovation, famously explained by Simon Sinek, you must achieve the tipping point between 15% and 18% market penetration in any industry. In layman’s terms, the early majority will only try something, such as telehealth, until other people have. The current robust demand could tip the scales in favor of extended use of telehealth services for years to come.

Even if telehealth visits fall in the short-term for physical therapy, this is undoubtedly a lasting market trend that will compound over the next decade. The Coronavirus has shifted the way people and providers approach physical therapy, and there will certainly be supplementary demand in the coming years.

Telehealth Legislation Becoming More Favorable

The trajectory of technology adaptation will fall into the hands of legislators and their acceptance of telehealth. In recent measures, Medicare has turned favorable for physical therapists, occupational therapists, and SLPs to use audio and video visits, making the rate the same as in-person visits for all diagnoses, not just those related to COVID-19. Seemingly everyday new legislature is proposed with additions for telehealth services in the field of physical therapy.

For your state’s specific policies, check out this great resource with updated news on current legislation.

Patients Will Expect Convenience

In our increasingly connected world, patients want the latest options available—they expect them. The convenience of video chatting with a licensed physical therapist over a HIPAA-compliant platform can improve results.

A promising report by The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery studied 287 patients who underwent knee replacement surgery. The results were shocking as the patients who used a telehealth system, in form of digitally simulated instruction, were hospitalized less and more physically fit than the traditional route of physical therapy.

And while this is an isolated study, the results are very encouraging for patients who don’t complete their scheduled sessions. According to this white paper published by Marquette University, some of the most prevalent reasons patients stop attending their therapy sessions are:

1. Lack of time (Crockett et al., 1986; Long et al., 2004; Schachter et al., 2003)

2. Travel distance (Wang et al., 2004)

3. Lack of privacy during physical therapy (Schachter et al., 2003)

The comfort of a patients’ home seems to be effective in all aspects of life, even when it comes to physical therapy.

Technological Advancements Make Therapy Easier

If you remember the actual sound of data being sent and received, 56k internet modems, it’s safe to say how far technology has advanced in a short time. Audio and video conferencing have come a long way with crystal clear sound and dynamic picture quality.

Furthermore, the latest in telehealth physical therapy promotes technology such as remote monitoring of patient progress with devices such as:

  • Neofect’s Rapael Smart Glove – Cloud-based data meets motion therapy in this information tracking device that tracks motion changes in the forearm, wrist, and digits.
  • A 3D digital exercise assistant called VERA instructs and records patient performance during rehabilitation—giving insight into recovery progress for patients and PTs.

These, along with the overarching theme of digital-physical therapy, can’t hope to replace the hands-on approach anytime soon. Still, in tandem with in-person visits, they continue to provide incredible results.

Payment for Telehealth Services Remains to be Seen

Insurance companies have largely covered telehealth during the COVID-19 pandemic, but can it continue? The question of payment is one of the biggest looming over physical therapists and patients who have embraced interaction through audio and video feeds. The problem isn’t if payers will continue but if there will be parity between in-office and virtual platforms.

For virtual care to sustain, and for patients to want virtual care, there must be clarity. While it’s difficult to speculate, over the next year, as the world returns to some form of normalcy, there will surely be transparency on these issues. But one thing is for sure; it will be harder for payers to rollback changes after patients have accepted the use of video care in the field of physical therapy.

The Bottom Line

Telehealth platforms have made a significant impact on physical therapy, making patient visits easier in a time of crisis. The early adaptation to this technology will likely pull-back but has expanded opportunities much faster than anticipated. Patients now expect these services, and demand will steadily grow once legislation and insurance coverage expand.

While these technologies are no replacement for in-person physical therapy, the potential for better patient care is no doubt increased using telehealth. If you want to get ahead of this upcoming demand and don’t yet have the technology to document remote visits accurately, try a free demo of MWTherapy’s software, which includes telehealth EMR and documentation templates as well as a plethora of other functions and features.

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