Advances in Telehealth: The Expansion of OT and PT Telemedicine

Medical professional hosting a PT telemedicine appointment on her laptop

2020 has seen the expansion of the role of virtual appointments for rehabilitation therapies.

We have all felt the wrath of COVID-19 and the legislative measures surrounding it for some time now. From small private business owners to healthcare workers, you would be hard-pressed to find an industry or individual that hasn’t taken a blow in some capacity this year.

But occasionally, the rehabilitation fields of occupational therapy (OT) and physical therapy (PT) are overlooked. As an industry, these practices were always believed to require physical contact or instruction from a qualified professional who was immediately present and available to give guidance or intervention when necessary. It turns out that this is not always the case, however, as COVID-19 has forced many healthcare providers in these fields to turn to telemedicine in order to provide patients with the care that they need.

While many providers may not be surprised that telehealth is an option, patients certainly have been, and the idea of being on the receiving end of physical or occupational therapy through a virtual medium is entirely alien to those who haven’t experienced such services. Regardless, the fields of OT and PT telemedicine continue to expand in the wake of COVID-19.

Does it really work?

After COVID-19 was declared a public health crisis and professionals in these fields began to seriously look into telehealth as an alternative, doubts soon started to surface that a virtual environment wouldn’t be able to provide the care that patients would need. But a recent survey showed that 95% of patients polled responded positively to their treatment experience, at least in regard to physical therapy.1

One of the most surprising yet most encouraging findings of the survey was that patient satisfaction is high among the older population, despite the idea that many in this group are less tech-savvy when it comes to operating virtual conferencing programs used in telehealth platforms. Of the respondents aged 65 and older, more than 90 percent indicated they were satisfied with the telehealth platform. Other areas that show encouraging data were that more patients kept their appointments versus traditional in-office visits and that the cost of care decreased due to patients completing their care regimen much sooner than in-office visit therapy.1

While OT and PT telemedicine might not be the best option for everyone, there are many who can benefit drastically from the ease of use and accessibility it provides to those either unwilling or unable to attend in-person appointments. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic specifically, it allows members of high-risk groups to safely receive the care that they need.

Learn how to set up and complete telehealth sessions for an OT or PT practice. Enroll in our 1-hour CE course, Telehealth for Physical and Occupational Therapy.

How long will it last?

Many people who have benefitted from the recent surge in normality regarding the usage of telehealth have serious doubts as to whether it will remain a regularly available service after COVID-19’s intensity wanes. After all, it has only been offered so ubiquitously due to the sanitization and social distancing requirements placed upon the healthcare industry. But future prospects for telehealth appear quite strong, though there is still some doubt as to whether these positive changes will be truly permanent.

There are definite examples of good news for the future of telemedicine, as the Expanded Telehealth Access Act (H.R. 8755) was recently presented to Congress by Representatives Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) and David McKinley (R-WV). If passed, the bill would enable occupational therapy practitioners to provide occupational therapy (OT) services to Medicare beneficiaries via telehealth even after the current Public Health Emergency (PHE) expires.2

At the beginning of October, two Pennsylvania-based companies announced that they permanently will include physical therapists among the providers who can bill for services delivered via telehealth, moving beyond temporary provisions adopted in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pennsylvania-based AmeriHealth Caritas and Independence Blue Cross recently issued information on the shift, which will be in place beginning Jan. 1, 2021. The companies serve a large base within the state with Independence Blue Cross being the largest health insurer in the Philadelphia area, serving about two million people in the region, while AmeriHealth Pennsylvania is a managed care health plan serving 200,000 people across the Lehigh and Northwest regions of Pennsylvania.3 If you are interested in the specific guidelines these companies will be using in the future to govern the usage of telehealth services, please read this article.

There is a solid chance that telemedicine will continue to be supported in the future by providers (of both healthcare and insurance); however it must be stated that the ability for it to maintain its present pace of progression and usage will be determined by a variety of factors subject to drastic change at any moment. In large part this will depend on the willingness of insurance providers to allow patients to bill them for telehealth services. Additionally, legislation will have a major impact on the industry’s future, as certain states can limit or prohibit the usage of telehealth in certain circumstances.

Moving forward

Given telehealth’s surge in popularity, new technologies are constantly being developed to make its usage more streamlined, effective, and affordable. For instance, scientists at the VTC Smart Rehab Lab, are developing breakthrough, affordable technologies and methods to connect stroke survivors to physical therapy at home through telerehabilitation.4

The lab was awarded $1.1 million by the National Science Foundation to continue development of its Semi-Automated Rehabilitation At Home (SARAH) project. The system will include a fused knowledge base of human and machine learning to assess patient performance during training and daily activities at the home and provide feedback to the patient and summaries of progress to the remote therapist—a major innovation that can be expanded to a range of therapy needs.4

There are also companies like SolvHealth, who make it their job to provide access to affordable telemedicine for providers and patients alike.

As the industry continues to expand in size and popularity, more and more companies are bound to step in and develop new platforms and technologies to facilitate greater access and affordability for telemedicine and its associated services.

Getting started with OT or PT telemedicine

If you are a physical or occupational therapy provider looking to add OT or PT telemedicine as an option for your practice, please consider taking a look at this telehealth quick start guide. If you are a patient, consider asking your doctor or insurance provider about what options might be available to you. Regardless of your status, searching online at your own pace is bound to reveal a plethora of options if you are willing to look.

Learn how to set up and complete telehealth sessions for an OT or PT practice in our 1-hour, beginner’s level CE course, Telehealth for Physical and Occupational Therapy.



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