How Telehealth Expands Physical Therapy for Patients with Chronic Illness
This article about expanding access to physical therapy for patients with chronic illness by utilizing Telehealth services was written by Katie McBeth at Clinicient.
While COVID-19 created plenty of disruptions, the pandemic also shone a spotlight on existing gaps in the healthcare industry. Luckily, these gaps were ones that technology could help solve.
Remote access to healthcare was one gap that Telehealth quickly filled.
Both now and in a post-pandemic world, physical therapists should continue to use Telehealth to expand their practice.
In addition, Telehealth also has the potential to uniquely benefit certain chronic illness patients after diagnosis. The CDC estimates that 6 in 10 adults in the U.S. have a chronic disease. Of those with a chronic illness diagnosis, 4 in 10 have two or more chronic conditions. This large patient group often faces barriers to receiving quality care. This means that for many, important medical needs are unmet.
These barriers include:
- Accessibility limitations
- Healthcare debt
- Medication management concerns
- Health literacy and education gaps
- Social barriers (like access to transportation or childcare in their community or family)
How Does Telehealth Help to Break Through These Barriers for Chronic Illness Patients?
Fortunately, physical therapists can use Telehealth to offer the same great care in a patient’s home that they typically provide in a clinic to a patient with chronic illness.
Here are three ways Telehealth can help you expand care to patients with chronic illness.
1. Telehealth Improves Accessibility to Care
Chronic illnesses include a broad range of conditions like the following.
- Heart and lung diseases
- Alzheimer’s disease
These conditions may not always cause a physical or visible disability. However, patients with chronic illnesses can still face accessibility limitations.
This is especially true during the pandemic, where pre-existing chronic illnesses place many patients in the “high-risk” category for COVID-19 complications. For some patients with chronic illnesses, Telehealth might be the only safe option for seeking physical therapy treatment. This remains true until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available.
Luckily, Telehealth provides a great alternative when patients can’t physically visit a physical therapy clinic. There are three specific examples.
- The service is far more accessible for patients who don’t have access to a vehicle and might need to find transportation to and from the clinic.
- For those in rural areas, Telehealth eliminates long commute times.
- Patients that require mobility aids won’t have to worry about inaccessible entrances, finding accessible parking, or other limitations they may experience in public spaces.
The option for Telehealth physical therapy also provides another benefit: stress relief for patients.
While necessary and helpful when it comes to chronic illness management, physical therapy sessions are often taxing on the individual – especially when attending them.
With Telehealth appointments, patients often feel more relaxed receiving care in a familiar, comfortable environment. They have access to any assistive devices they regularly use within their homes, their medications, water and snacks, emotional support pets, or other personal essentials.
Simply put, Telehealth offers patients better access to medical experts without having to leave their homes. In addition, they won’t worry about childcare, traffic, or other setbacks. Consequently, patients may be less likely to cancel or reschedule their appointments. Instead, they can focus more on their treatment plan and actual health and stress less about their appointment.
2. Remote Visits Lower Healthcare Costs
In the U.S., medical costs are a common concern for patients with chronic illnesses. Many of them experience more doctor’s visits, hospital admittances, and emergency visits than traditional patients.
As a result, managing a chronic illness may cost thousands of dollars out of pocket annually. These figures are illustrated in a 2016 review of Medicaid patient costs.
Offering Telehealth visits can provide a cost-effective alternative for these patients.
Depending on the patient’s insurance provider and plan, a remote visit’s price might not be much different from an in-person visit. However, the patient will save money over time. How is this possible?
- Saving money on travel expenses
- Changing the frequency of visits
- Not needing to take additional time away from work to attend sessions
A collection of research from 2014 shows that offering Telehealth to patients with chronic illnesses improves their ability to self-manage and reduces their frequency of doctor visits and related costs.
While the studies mainly focused on care related to chronic illness, physical therapists may observe a similar benefit for their patients who use Telehealth. The accessibility of Telehealth means patients are less likely to cancel or reschedule their appointments. Additionally, when you work with your patient in their home, you can help them adapt their home life to a more suitable therapy environment.
Patients feel more empowered to follow their treatment plans, helping them meet their recovery or management goals in a timely manner. While many other factors are in play during your patient’s recovery, Telehealth offers some patients much-needed flexibility.
Ultimately, patients may experience fewer recurrences of injury or delayed recovery, and in turn, fewer healthcare costs related to their treatment.
3. Telehealth Promotes Self-Management of Treatment
As awareness around social determinants of health grows in the healthcare industry, Telehealth provides the unique advantage of letting doctors into a portion of their patient’s world.
When your patient uses a webcam, you’ll gain a better understanding of how their environment shapes their recovery. Virtually, physical therapists can even perform home safety, ergonomics, or return-to-play evaluations.
The necessity of these evaluations depends on the patient’s recovery needs and overall goals.
If you’re guiding a patient through exercises, you can help them maximize their space for workouts. You can suggest supports in their environment for balance practice or suggest a space they can clear for stretching. These may seem like little more than helpful in-session tips for chronic illness patients, but they are much more.
Even after the appointment is completed, the patient can continue to use those household items and suggestions to complete their home exercise plans.
Via Telehealth, day-to-day recovery management becomes easier for patients with chronic illnesses.
Another benefit that Telehealth offers is the ability to assess symptoms in real-time.
If a patient has trouble reaching into a cupboard, lifting their baby, or performing a similar activity, you can watch them practice this maneuver during the Telehealth visit.
With your trained eye, you may notice postures or movements that cause your patient pain. You then have the opportunity to offer them a solution or adaptation that might help their recovery and promote self-management between visits.
This is a true example of helping patients “work with what they’ve got.” For many with one or more chronic illnesses, this is exceptionally useful.
Although Telehealth will never replace the hands-on benefits of in-person visits, getting a peek inside your patient’s home life is an invaluable benefit of offering – and providing – remote physical therapy services.
Continuing to Adapt to the Needs of Your Patients with Chronic Illnesses
As a patient’s needs change and their recovery progresses, it’ll be important to adapt your Telehealth visits accordingly. Successful physical therapy for patients with chronic illnesses is about adaptability by both parties involved.
You may need to create updated visuals to help them with exercises or to help them understand their recovery expectations. Additionally, sometimes it is necessary to schedule a few in-person visits to have some hands-on treatment if the patient is able to attend. The in-clinic visits for patients with chronic illnesses serve multiple purposes.
- They allow chronic illness patients to meet their therapy teams face to face, which helps build trust and comfort.
- In-clinic physical therapy sessions allow for hands-on care. This gives patients a chance to do exercises with a physical therapist right next to them for support and guidance.
- Physical therapy sessions in clinics allow patients to use state of the art equipment. This benefit may help them understand the exercises and conditions they need to replicate at home.
Whatever the road to recovery looks like for your patient with chronic illness, Telehealth offers a more affordable, accessible, and manageable treatment plan for those that need it most.
Offer Telehealth at Your Clinic Today for Patients with Chronic Illnesses
Whether the patient is transitioning from in-person to Telehealth visits or is brand new to your clinic, joining a network like BetterPT is an asset to your practice. Having access to tools like online scheduling, Telehealth, patient outreach, and QR codes helps each of your patients easily access and adapt to their care plan.
To use platforms like BetterTelehealth, the only requirements for patients are a computer, tablet, or smartphone with a stable Internet connection. The rest of the visit is managed on your end in the clinic.
For you, in the clinic, when your Telehealth service is combined with your existing EMR, scheduling, and billing platform, like Clinicient’s Insight solution, the transition for your team can be seamless. For the benefit of both you and your clients, the design of these platforms is intuitive, adaptable, and simple to use.
Physical therapy itself is all about adapting, and Telehealth allows all involved parties to do just that. It’s not a “traditional” form of physical therapy, but it is one that makes a difference. With the implementation of Telehealth solutions, access to physical therapy becomes readily more available, no matter a patient’s circumstances.
Why wait? Learn more about Telehealth and how it is designed to help you accurately and completely treat all of your patients – not just those with a chronic illness diagnosis.
Katie McBeth is a writer and healthcare researcher living in the Pacific Northwest. As a member of the Clinicient team, Katie is dedicated to helping PTs, OTs, and SLPs adapt to industry changes. She also works with them to grow their practices and form meaningful connections with their patients. You can find more of Katie’s writing on the Clinicient blog.