June 7, 2022 | Net Health

6 min read

FOTO Research into Physical Therapy Telehealth Opens the Door to Post-Pandemic Possibilities

As the country continues to assess the collective safety of our citizens while COVID-19 seemingly approaches endemic levels, many of us are eagerly (and perhaps anxiously) looking forward to seeing how the post-pandemic healthcare world shakes out.

That’s because, over the last two-plus years, we in the rehab therapy community have had to make concessions and accommodations in the face of a number of significant challenges. In some cases, this forced our hands to try to innovate new solutions that may not have seemed ideal in a perfect world, but which helped clinics continue providing services to patients.

So, now that we’re approaching a post-pandemic world, it’s a time for reflection.

We can’t just flip a switch back to early 2020, so instead, healthcare leaders are taking time to assess the value of some of the solutions rehab therapists turned to during the pandemic. As they do, we’re learning that some were not only effective, but also offer long-term possibilities for improving healthcare and the patient experience.

Take telehealth, for instance. During the first year of the pandemic, telehealth visits from just Medicare Part B patients increased 63-fold, from 840,000 in 2019 to 52.7 million in 2020.1

That’s certainly quite a leap. But, were these appointments and related treatments effective?

One study recently completed by FOTO® Patient Outcomes, a Net Health® company, found that telehealth was indeed effective for patients suffering from one of the most common musculoskeletal ailments in the U.S.: low back pain.2

Telerehab a Viable Option for Patients with Low Back Pain

In the study, titled “Is Telerehabilitation a Viable Option for Patients with Low Back Pain? Associations Between Telerehabilitation and Outcomes During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” FOTO dipped into its vast database of more than 9 million episodes of care to examine the effectiveness of back pain treatments when delivered in-person and via telehealth.

FOTO researchers concluded that 82% of physical therapy patients with low back pain, and who received telerehabilitation for the condition during the COVID-19 pandemic, were very satisfied with their treatment results. In comparison, patient satisfaction stood at 86% for those who received traditional, in-person office visits.3

Research further showed that patient outcomes from telerehabilitation treatments were equally effective for improving physical function and more efficient (fewer visits) when compared with those from traditional, in-person office visits.4

One aspect that makes these numbers so significant is that low back pain is the leading cause of global disability.5 In the U.S. alone, it’s estimated that 25% of all adults have experienced low back pain at some point over the last three months.6

With the ability to effectively and efficiently treat more patients through telerehabilitation, just imagine the possibilities rehab therapists have for reaching more people and improving more lives within our respective communities!

Envisioning a Future with Telerehab

Of course, we know that as a rehab therapist, it’s likely you’re almost always going to prefer the personal intimacy and engagement that comes with more traditional, in-person visits. You’re most familiar with your own clinical space, and within it contains all the tools, equipment and assistance you’ll likely need to effectively produce positive patient outcomes.

That said, however, having the confidence that telerehab options are not only available, but proven to be effective and efficient, can open the door to greater possibilities when it comes to serving your community and also improving your bottom line.

Some ways telehealth can be used in tandem with in-person visits include:

Better Serving Traditionally Underserved Areas and Populations

It’s an unfortunate reality, but not all areas of our country have equal access to healthcare. This includes access to physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech-language pathology services.

Such limits may be due to the lack of local providers in a particular area, such as a rural county or region, or issues like insufficient transportation to and from in-person appointments.

Telehealth, or telerehabilitation, can be used to help patients break through these access issues, allowing them to connect with rehab therapists without the need to travel great or inconvenient distances.

In fact, it was recently announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is planning to award grants totaling $43 million to support rural healthcare providers amid the ongoing pandemic. And, many of these grant recipients plan to use the funds to expand their telehealth capabilities.7

Connecting with People with Limited Mobility or Transportation

For people with limited mobility, including our aging population, telehealth offers some great potential for helping them maintain a level of independence in their homes.

With the option to engage with rehab therapists without leaving the house, elderly and disabled patients can access essential health services in a more convenient and self-directed way.

For rehab therapists, this provides you with an option to maintain continuity of care for patients who you expect may not be mobile enough to make it to your clinic for each and every session.

Offering these patients an in-person/telehealth hybrid option for their plans of care (POCs) may help your team reduce the number of cancellations and no-shows while potentially improving outcomes for these patients.

Improving Employee Health in Your Community

Just as back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide, it’s also one of the leading causes of missed work by U.S. employees.

According to the CDC, greater than one in four working adults experience low back pain, which is a condition that affects nearly 40 million U.S. workers.8 This can prove costly for employers, especially if they’re not proactively seeking solutions to prevent low back ailments in their places of business.

The use of telehealth can make such solutions more accessible for employers, providing them with an efficient and affordable way to connect with rehab therapists for injury/accident prevention training, workspace assessments (i.e., ergonomic evaluations), possible injury assessment and triage, and so on.

Optimizing Overall Patient Engagement

As rehab therapists continue to more fully grasp the benefits that come with better engaging with their patients, the utilization of elements of telehealth within these processes may seem like a no-brainer.

Using telehealth tools to virtually check in with patients from time to time – to ensure at-home exercises are being performed correctly, or to visually check in with patients following the completion of their plans of care – can lead to improved patient outcomes while also helping establish long-term “patients for life.”

And, of course, all of this can help boost your bottom line.

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1 JAMA Network, “Increased Use of Medicare Telehealth During the Pandemic,” January 25, 2022
2 3 4 Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation Journal, “Is Telerehabilitation a Viable Option for Patients with Low Back Pain? Associations between Telerehabilitation and Outcomes during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” February 23, 2022
International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), “The Global Burden of Back Pain,” July 9, 2021
Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Acute Low Back Pain”
 mHealthIntelligence, “Rural Providers to Use USDA Grants to Boost Telehealth Capabilities,” April 19, 2022
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Low Back Pain among Workers: The Problem and What to Do About It,” July 8, 2019

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