Using Telehealth for Physical Therapy Practices in the Future
This article about using telehealth in physical therapy practices was written by Marla Ranieri, PT, DPT, OCS, Chief Development Officer at BetterPT
Utilizing Technology Now and in the Future
The COVID-19 pandemic changed how and where individuals connect in 2020.
From celebrating birthdays via Zoom to using QR codes to access restaurant menus, people increasingly adopted new technology on the fly. But daily conveniences and personal connections aren’t the only areas where new technology came into play.
During the earliest stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth became a vital resource for medical professionals to continue caring for their patients. This was particularly useful when they couldn’t meet in person. The result?
Half of all physical therapy sessions in 2020 were conducted virtually!
As we enter 2021, it’s important to review the state of telehealth for physical therapy practices. This includes the current regulations and reimbursements, as well as the best practices for using telehealth services.
The Current State of Telehealth for Physical Therapists
Telehealth access expanded into physical therapy practices as a result of the public health emergency. By and large, practices continue to operate under these temporary regulations. This means that permanent changes in both legislation and payer reimbursement are necessary to continue widespread adoption of telehealth services.
The CARES Act provided temporary exemptions to restrictions for many types of health care. It also gave physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists temporary eligibility to offer telehealth services. By increasing the number of medical professionals authorized to provide virtual care, more people had access to care when they needed it most.
This was a huge change for many practices – and patients, too.
On October 23, 2020, the public health emergency declaration was most recently renewed for 90 days. This means that before too long, the time will come to revisit – and reevaluate the situation. The future of this option depends on how providers use telehealth now. By using the available technology effectively and safely, providers prove telehealth is a vital tool for therapists beyond the pandemic.
Best Practices for Providing Physical Therapy Using Telehealth
Telehealth is a valuable tool for physical therapists. This is especially true while many areas in the country maintain strict social distancing and indoor capacity restrictions.
Before you begin offering virtual sessions, consider the following.
- The safety and security of telehealth technology
- Informed patient consent
- Options for protecting patient privacy
- Continuing to abide by HIPAA regulations
- Recognizing state and local laws and regulations
Currently, the CARES Act exempts Telehealth providers from HIPAA compliance. However, this is temporary and will not be the case when the state of emergency expires. With or without temporary exemption, it’s important that everything a physical therapist does is HIPAA compliant. This includes telehealth services.
It’s important your practice implements a safe, secure, and HIPAA compliant telehealth platform. The earlier you begin planning, the less sudden the switch will be when it becomes necessary.
When the public health emergency expires, HIPAA enforcement as it relates to remote communication technology will resume. This is one of the most important changes expected when focused on using telehealth.
As a physical therapy provider, it is essential to know exactly what you can and cannot do when it comes to treating patients.
Is Telehealth Physical Therapy Legal?
The answer is yes.
Telehealth services are legal and will continue to be even after the public health emergency ends. However, physicians and physical therapists need to ensure the care they offer patients remains HIPAA compliant and produces the best possible patient outcomes.
Using telehealth isn’t a question of legality; instead, it’s more efficacy.
Whether your clinic adopts a hybrid model (a mix of in-person and virtual visits) or you’re considering going virtual full-time, physical therapy professionals must be careful and competent when working with patients. That is something that doesn’t ever change.
This means keeping clients and their information safe, as well as following other guidelines for care. These guidelines are outlined in the APTA Code of Ethics and The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Following these guidelines to the letter is essential for the long term safety and security for each and every practice.
The safest way to ensure compliance and protect yourself and your practice is to stay up to date on changes in HIPAA laws and regulations and any alterations to the Codes of Ethics.
- Look into insurance requirements. This includes limits on the frequency, duration, and types of visits that can be conducted using telehealth.
- Implement an up-to-date HIPAA compliance privacy policies and procedures manual.
- Check state legislation regarding direct access considerations.
- Understand individual state requirements. Many states have an in-person requirement for telehealth-based provider-patient relationships. This means it may not be possible to operate a fully telehealth-based practice.
- Confirm the location of your patient during your telehealth session. This helps you remain consistent with practice guidelines (treating within your license state). This also makes it possible to prepare an action plan in case a situation arises during the call where your patient needs supporting medical help sent to their home.
- Make sure your patient signs your company’s Telehealth Consent to Treat form prior to every Telehealth session that occurs.
The laws surrounding telehealth often lag when it comes to technology, patient demands, and provider capabilities.
This makes it critical to be proactive. Sign a Business Associate Agreement (BAA) with your telehealth service provider. Ensure that a reputable and comprehensive insurance policy covers you and your team. Taking steps early helps you later and ensures that the future of telehealth for your practice isn’t in jeopardy.
Remember: Everything a physical therapist does requires HIPAA compliance. This is true for both services and platforms used, as well as the chosen treatment methods.
Considerations When Choosing a Telehealth Platform
Implementing telehealth services into your practice helps grow your clinic and provide necessary care to previously unreachable patients.
From utilizing online scheduling, EMR integration, and the ability to have more than two participants in sessions, it matters which telehealth platform you choose.
There are many different and important telehealth features that practices should consider. Three of the most important considerations are simplicity, security, and safety.
Simplicity and platform ease of use helps both patients and therapists get the most out of each session. A non-complex system makes people feel confident each time they log in for telehealth sessions and receive care.
Security ensures that patient information is securely stored on the platform. It also means that the platform itself is secure. Some sessions may require additional participants aside from the patient and therapist. However, unauthorized users should never be able to access sessions or patient health information at any time. The future of telehealth depends on implementing and enforcing safety measures to fully protect everyone involved.
Safety for patients and therapists must be carefully considered during each telehealth session. This means having patients sign a Telehealth Consent to Treat form prior to their session. It also means being able to easily see and hear each other during sessions. Additionally, this includes being confident when asking questions or demonstrating exercises or techniques. Finally, it’s critical to know where patients are physically located during sessions in case of an emergency.
The following are other key features you should consider when choosing a platform and using telehealth long term.
- Easy access for patients and providers on their device of choice
- Integrated reminder system that syncs with patient’s calendars
- A personalized consent to treat form automatically sent to patients
- A sign off automatically requested from individual patients prior to every call
- The ability for patients to request an appointment from either the website or through email
- Flexibility to allow more than two people to join each visit
- EMR integration
- Pay-per-call pricing model
- HIPAA compliance, including signed BAA
If you’re unsure if your chosen platform offers these features, consider selecting a better option for telehealth.
What worked at the height of the pandemic might not be the right choice for using telehealth long term.. Now is the time to choose a telehealth platform that grows with your practice.
A main consideration for using telehealth long term – or even permanently – is finding a legally compliant way to offer it. The steps listed above are great features to include in your platform and patient offerings, but they may need modification based on your individual situation.
Choose a Telehealth platform that grows with your practice, not a short-term Band-Aid.
BetterTelealth is one of these platforms – and it’s designed with both patients and physical therapists in mind.
The easy-to-use, HIPAA compliant platform provides one-tap access to safe and secure video sessions. These sessions allow patients and providers to openly discuss treatment options and course of care. Covering the basics makes using telehealth the best option for treatment when in-persion sessions are not viable.
BetterTelehealth’s seamless user experiences keeps the focus on what matters most: Getting BETTER.
Reasons to Make Telehealth Part of Your Practice Long Term
Telehealth may have helped your clinic maintain the status quo during the initial outbreak of COVID-19. However, that isn’t a reason to limit the possibility of future growth.
Many physical therapists turned to telehealth when the pandemic forced clinics to shut their doors. Reopening isn’t a reason to abandon using telehealth. Instead, use it to grow your business and expand access for your patients.
- Telehealth increases patient volumes
- It attracts new patients who won’t (or can’t) travel for care
- Telehealth helps convert appointment cancellations into sessions
- Appointments using telehealth offer more in-depth functional analyses for patients
Telehealth should account for 20% of your caseload on a yearly basis.
That’s 20 percent additional volume you may miss out on if you’re not utilizing telehealth sessions. Not only does this mean more patient volume and people helped – it also means more work and opportunity for success for your employees.
With a safe and simple telehealth platform in place, you can advance and grow your practice. Do this by capitalizing on opportunities that didn’t exist before. The future of telehealth depends on what is done now.
Using Telehealth to Reduce Cancellations and Missed Appointments
Cancellations are frustrating. They lead to missed opportunities and scheduling inefficiencies or complications. Experiencing cancellation is an issue for both patient and provider. It’s not one-sided.
Is your patient stuck at work? Is their transportation unreliable? Are there weather concerns? These excuses don’t need to lead to cancellations if you’re offering and using telehealth!
Whether the case is inclement weather or genuine sickness, telehealth offers a solution for your clinic. It keeps more patients on the books and reduces cancellations. When the next time a big storm is in the forecast, rather than have your staff call to confirm appointments or even cancel outright, offer to schedule those sessions virtually instead. This ensures patients are able to receive care, no matter the circumstances. You’ll reduce cancellation numbers while maintaining continuity of care.
Medical care should be accessible, and telehealth makes it possible.
What’s Next for Telehealth?
The pandemic has made it clear that the use of telehealth by physical therapy professionals is both appropriate and effective in delivering care, improving patient outcomes, and expanding patient access to available physical therapy services.
Using telehealth physical therapy sessions shouldn’t be for emergencies only.
Despite the recent renewal of the public health emergency, the allowances for telehealth are still temporary. Significant changes to both state and federal legislation as well as commercial payer policies are necessary to expand services on a more permanent basis.
Congressional action is needed to outline specific, explicit authorization in the federal statute for physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech language pathologists when it comes to the future of telehealth. These rules and regulations will allow providers to continue offering services via telehealth after expiration of the public health emergency.
Several current bills seek to expand the list of eligible telehealth providers to include physical therapists.
The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and their members are engaged in advocacy efforts to expand telehealth services to the list of resources readily available for physical therapists. This permanent expansion would be mutually beneficial to the medical community as well as to large networks of patients.
The APTA believes there is broad support among patients, providers, and policymakers to expand telehealth services for physical therapists. These bills will be presented to the new Congress in January 2021.
Telehealth Is a Key Component for Treatment by Physical Therapists
Physical therapy itself is all about adapting, and BetterPT’s telehealth platform allows for just that. BetterTelehealth isn’t just a video conferencing app.
This solution offers your team a seamless integration of telehealth services across all platforms. This includes EMR, scheduling, and billing platforms. What does it include?
- Automatic reminders via email, text and calendar
- Pre-programmed consent to treat forms
- Clickable confirmation links via text and email
- Quality control of every call ensuring a successful visit
BetterTelehealth offers your staff the opportunity for increased efficiency. Not only do they need this platform; it’s an option that they want.
Additionally, BetterTeleheath is easy to use for patients. They only need a device with a stable internet connection or WiFi. The rest of the visit is managed on your end from the clinic.
Telehealth services are still being covered by CMS and major insurance carriers under the public health emergency. While temporary applications, such as FaceTime and Google Meet may have been your go-to for offering and using telehealth, work to find a solution that will protect your business and provide an efficient workflow for your staff.
It will be well worth the investment long term.
Why wait? Learn more about BetterTelehealth and how it is designed to help you accurately and completely treat all of your patients.
Dr. Marla Ranieri graduated from Stanford University with her bachelor’s degree in Human Biology in 2005. She went on to receive her Doctorate in Physical Therapy from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in 2009. Dr. Ranieri continues to practice within the physical therapy industry while also venturing into the technology space as the Chief Development Officer of BetterTelehealth.