The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world as we know it, forcing the field of physical therapy to adopt telehealth.
It has created mass disruption across every industry, both private and public, not to mention the personal disturbances and sacrifices it has caused all citizens around the world. With no sweeping regulations from the Federal level, governors from each state were responsible for implementing COVID-19 safeguards and rules based on the particular impact of their state. In many cases, these new regulations were implemented overnight. As the pandemic effectively froze all activities, the American workforce was divided into essential and non-essential categories. Workers and businesses deemed non-essential were required to shut down all operations and adhere to stay-at-home and self-isolation orders. For many states, this initially included physical therapy healthcare practitioners until the Department of Homeland Security, along with state governments, deemed physical therapy an essential healthcare service.
This acknowledgment created an interesting catch-22. Physical therapists were able to continue seeing patients. Still, many municipalities had issued stay-at-home orders, and even with the federal government nod, many patients simply chose not to cancel appointments and forgo much-needed physical therapy healthcare regimens. Facing a dilemma, physical therapy practitioners turned to telehealth as a way to maintain the healthcare offering to patients as well as the financial health of the practice.
The Rapid Evolution of Telehealth Takes Hold
Telehealth is currently a $2.6B industry and has grown more than 25% since 2015. As telehealth became more prominent in other healthcare disciplines, physical therapists largely ignored the platform due to the “hands-on” nature of physical therapy services. As COVID-19 continued to grip the nation, the industry launched an exploration of how telehealth could be applied to physical therapy and what regulatory structures might be needed to ensure patient safety, while encouraging best practices.
To enable the mass deployment and accessibility of telehealth platforms, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma HIPAA restrictions that had historically hampered the adoption of telemedicine as a viable patient care option. The deregulations included the ability of physicians to treat patients across state lines and allowed the development of IT infrastructures that were not compliant or regulated by HIPPA laws. This had the approval of dozens of new billing codes to itemize and enable medical professionals to bill Medicare for telehealth services.
Care providers across all medical disciplines who had been reluctant to adopt telehealth began adopting it at a record pace. Medstar Health, an integrated health system in the Washington D.C. area, went from 10 telehealth visits per week to 4,000 per day. FAIR Health reported that telehealth claims went from their March 2019 base of .17% of all claims to 7.57% by the end of March 2020—a 43-fold increase in the first month of the pandemic alone. In the Northeast, where COVID hit incredibly hard, telehealth visits increased 150-fold.
Survey Results Prove Telehealth a Clear Benefit
With such an explosive increase of use in an unfamiliar platform, Bay State Physical Therapy teamed up with Northeastern University’s Department of Physical Therapy, Movement and Rehabilitation Sciences to conduct the first of its kind survey. The basis of this survey is to better understand the efficacy and patient experience of more than 450 patients across 60 physical therapy clinics utilizing telehealth. What they discovered is that telehealth in the field of physical therapy health services is making a positive and lasting impact.
The survey found that 95 percent of patients polled were very satisfied with their telehealth experience. This result nears the in-clinic patient satisfaction rating of 97 percent, demonstrating that patients are just as happy with telehealth platform treatments as they were from in-person appointments. One of the critical drivers for the high-ranking was convenience, comfort, and safety of staying at home. Interestingly, one of the patients surveyed commented on the additional measure of privacy with telehealth versus in-office visits, which is counter-intuitive to traditional HIPAA privacy concerns.
One of the most surprising findings of the survey, as well as the most encouraging, was that patient satisfaction was high among the older population, who many consider 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.
Today, telemedicine has become a crucial healthcare offering. The more that telehealth is integrated into the healthcare system, the clearer the benefits become, not only for patients but for healthcare providers. In addition to providing quality healthcare access from a home or office, physicians are accessing additional revenue streams and meeting with more patients. This isn’t to say that telehealth will completely replace in-office visits, and the latter will be required to continue providing care, especially within “hands-on” healthcare fields such as physical therapy. However, with the widespread adoption of telehealth platforms continuing to rise into the next several years, then telehealth will become a staple program within a patient’s overall healthcare treatment plan.