When the Governor of Washington State announced the Stay-At-Home order, my heart sank. As a physical therapy private practice owner, panic set in immediately. How will we take care of our patients? How will I take care of my 88 employees?
Physical therapy is a hands-on, highly relational field. After finishing training, many therapists enter residency programmes to learn manual therapy skills. Board-certified mentors teach therapists how to mobilise and manipulate joints and soft tissues to address the root causes of conditions, such as low back pain or repetitive ankle sprains.
The most effective treatments combine manual therapy with exercise to restore ideal movement and function. Care is delivered one-on-one multiple times per week, and the therapist-patient relationship is central to positive outcomes. It is an intimate, in-person experience; I was sceptical of our ability to be effective via online platforms.
Added to my scepticism was the hurdle that our payers (e.g. insurance companies) did not pay for Telehealth. As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded rapidly, physical therapists and legislators put pressure on healthcare payers to reimburse for remote treatment.
Copious amounts of information about each payer’s plans arrived in my inbox each day. 24 hours later, there were new announcements with conflicting details. There were no clear answers about whether or not we would get paid for Telehealth visits.
Still, visions of our beloved elderly population raced through my mind. I thought of the dozens of patients recovering from surgery who also had underlying health conditions.
The story of a friend who needed to start physical therapy after extensive surgery to repair a torn tendon in her shoulder kept me up at night. She was also a carer for an elderly relative in her home.
What was she supposed to do? Delaying treatment would cause long-term harm and, potentially, additional surgery. Proceeding with in-person care risked lives.
Outpatient Physical Therapy (OPT) needed to make Telehealth therapy an option for patients, even if we would not get paid later. And, we wanted to make it easy so that we could start straight away. Additionally, we demanded an online meeting solution that was reliable for both therapists and patients.
With virtual visits, I could keep therapists employed and continue care for every patient who needed it. We quickly trained therapists to give the best possible care online and transitioned our most vulnerable patients immediately.
And to my pleasant surprise, it is working:
“I am in the middle of physical therapy for a shoulder problem. My first few appointments were in-person, but once the governor issued the stay-at-home order, I changed my PT appointments to telehealth appointments. It is working out well. I video conference with my therapist, he watches me perform some of my home exercises, he demonstrates new exercises for me, and we have a good conversation about my progress and goals and plan accordingly. Obviously, I am not able to have the therapist massage my shoulder by video, but that is a small price to pay for the additional safety (for both of us) that is gained by having a remote or virtual telehealth visit rather than an in-person visit.”
– Sandra W., a patient at Outpatient Physical Therapy (OPT)
Thanks to Telehealth, I no longer have to panic because OPT can continue to do what we do best: take care of people. With virtual visits, we are keeping people employed and getting people healthy as we all work together to stop the spread of COVID-19.