During the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, health care practitioners, including rehab therapists, and patients have adopted telemedicine to an unprecedented degree, initially for safety reasons. Along the way, many have found that visits via videoconferencing or phone offer great convenience by eliminating travel time and simplifying the scheduling process.
Research by McKinsey & Company reveals that while only 11 percent of consumers used telehealth in 2019, 46 percent were using these remote services by May of 2020 to replace canceled office visits. As of May, 57 percent of practitioners viewed telehealth in a more favorable light than prior to the pandemic, and 64 percent were more comfortable about using it.1
An Updox survey conducted by The Harris Poll2 revealed a boom in popularity for telehealth among patients and practitioners alike. Results revealed that 42 percent of Americans have used telemedicine since the pandemic started. Among respondents who said they liked telemedicine:
- 65 percent say that it’s because they don’t need to worry about getting exposed to people with COVID-19.
- 63 percent cite the convenience of being able to stay at home.
- 44 percent find it easier to schedule a telemedicine session than an office visit.
- 38 percent believe that follow-up is more streamlined.
What are PTs Saying?
In an assessment of rehab therapist points of view via interviews, most agreed that while telemedicine can’t be used for all aspects of physical and occupational therapy, it has been extremely helpful during the pandemic, and they see continuing to use telehealth post-pandemic. Some PTs acknowledged that there are many conditions PTs can treat without seeing their patients face-to-face.
Some rehab therapists, who moved exclusively to virtual visits at the start of the pandemic, expect to adopt hybrid models mixing virtual with face-to-face meetings in their offices and at home as the crisis eases.
Additional insights from the interviews:
Videoconferencing Seen as Effective Initial Screening Tool
A number of PTs expressed that videoconferencing is an effective initial screening tool for patients who have an injury but who are afraid to visit the clinic because of COVID-19. The same is true for patients who can’t get to the clinic right away and need quick advice for next steps. Do they need to visit the ER or Urgent Care? Or just put some ice on it? Do they need a prescription? These are decisions that can conveniently be made without a face-to-face interaction.
PTs Able to Assess and Treat Some Muscular/Joint Problems
Initial evaluations for pain and/or limited ability because of muscle and joint problems can be effectively performed via telehealth, as can considerable follow-up treatments, according to some PTs interviewed.
One PT shared that a patient’s posture provides clues to areas that are dysfunctional. Therapists can direct patients to perform selected movements and observe the faulty or adaptive movement patterns and areas of limited mobility, weakness or poorly coordinated movement.
On subsequent telehealth visits, postures and exercises can then be modified to reflect the demonstrated improvement, and education can direct the person in modifying what they can do on a daily basis to further improve their condition. People can be instructed in specific self-massage or muscular trigger point releases using things as basic as a tennis ball or more advanced with a foam roller.
Face-to-Face Visits are Still Necessary
All therapists said that face-to-face visits are still necessary for some conditions. Hands-on skills can be helpful for restoring lost motion of joints and stiff muscles and for delivering additional corrective guidance for proper movement or postures, PTs said. Also, face-to-face visits are essential to patients with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV).
The need for face-to-face meetings varies further according to area of specialization. It was mentioned that occupational therapy (OT) requires some in-person attention in order to fit and evaluate braces and other devices, but it also can be managed with a hybrid system.
Clearly, the potential advantages of telehealth are gaining in popularity as more rehab therapists learn about the benefits.
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(1) McKinsey & Company, Telehealth: A Quarter-Trillion Dollar Post-Covid Reality? May 29, 2020.