As we all know, the use of telemedicine has significantly increased over the past decade and there is no denying that the public health emergency (PHE) caused by the COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed its adoption as well as advancement in a big way.  In fact, according to a recent study, telehealth visits in rural areas increased from 11 virtual appointments per 1,000 in December 2019, to 147 per 1,000 in June 2020! This change was even steeper for urban areas, where virtual care shot from 7 to 220 per 1,000 visits in the same period.

In the past, we have reviewed how COVID-19 has shaped healthcare as well as how Raintree has evolved rapidly to meet the expectations and demands of virtual therapy and rehab. However, now that discussions of the pandemic are subsiding, it’s time to ask some other important questions like is telehealth still a relevant form of treatment for physical therapy patients?

Are Therapy Patients Still Benefiting From Telehealth?

Whether it’s physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech-language pathology (SLP), or ABA, telehealth has clear-cut benefits, especially for patients in rural and underserved areas. But what do therapists have to say about the quality of care being delivered via telehealth? For a deeper understanding of how therapists and their patients are handling virtual treatment options, let’s take a closer look…

The Impact of COVID-19 on Virtual Physical Therapy

The digital solutions born of the pandemic have accelerated healthcare technology in more ways than one! While telehealth capabilities were always in the pipeline, the necessity and demand for virtual appointment options inspired healthcare professionals around the world to work together for a common, safe solution. As a result, the delivery of physical therapy has been forever altered, with the pros of implementing telehealth not only outweighing the cons but eliminating them as technology continues to progress! 

With the amount of data that COVID-19 has supplied in the prolonged use of telehealth services, experts now believe that the future of physical therapy lies in hybrid solutions that involve in-person visits alongside virtual care. In the case of patients, this approach reduces the amount of travel needed, saving time and money, as well as minimizing the amount of energy a recovering patient expends when attempting to come into the office for their appointment.

As for providers, using telehealth helps boost profitability by expanding access to real-time services as well as standardizing healthcare. Additionally, virtual options also facilitate scheduling vital in-person interactions with physical therapists when necessary.

Beyond the benefits that virtual health services offer every physical therapy patient, one Oxford Academic study involving 53 systematic reviews found that telehealth in therapy helped with conditions such as osteoarthritis, hip and knee replacement, low-back pain, and multiple sclerosis!

Unsurprisingly, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) advocates for telehealth and all of the benefits it offers both therapists and patients in addition to the advancement of the niche, its continued education and research on the enhancement of quality, as well as unfettered access to telehealth services. 

Telehealth’s Role in Occupational Rehabilitation

When it comes to measuring the effectiveness of telehealth in occupational therapy, the results speak for themselves! Telehealth adoption has reduced delays in care, fostered connectivity with caregivers, as well as helped identify challenges within the home environment when compared to in-person care. 

Telemedicine options have proven to be an effective way to deliver occupational therapy, maybe even an ideal way! Many patients that seek occupational therapy struggle to operate within the confines of their regular environment, which is their own home, in most cases. By eliminating the struggles of traveling to a new location as well as learning and developing habits in an unfamiliar setting, telehealth has transformed patient care for those who can benefit from a simple digital solution.

During the covid pandemic, many rehabilitative treatments utilized by occupational therapists were adapted into telehealth and virtual visits, pushing the boundaries of home exercise programs and value-based care. With the eventual end to the public health emergency (PHE), occupational therapists fear that the telehealth expansions that made care safe and effective may come to an end – severely impacting not only patients who struggle to leave their homes but those in rural communities and other medically underserved areas as well.

That is why, alongside APTA, the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) advocates for the permanent expansion of telehealth services.

How Has Telehealth Transformed Applied Behavioral Analysis?

Ascend Autism Group is one of the providers who has leaned significantly on telehealth ABA therapy services during the pandemic, relying on video conferencing platforms such as Zoom to maintain support for patients. Throughout their experience with managing care via telehealth, the group has recognized several advantages of the flexibilities that video calling offers ABA, including:

  • Improved patient satisfaction and outcomes. Telehealth provides more ways of supporting patients and modifying treatment plans as well as frequent interventions.
  • Increased communication and supervision. The technology allows more time between ABA therapists and patients.
  • Scheduling convenience. Families and patients can reschedule sessions or switch to video conferencing if they cannot make it to a physical session.

Thanks to COVID-19 necessitating a quick pivot to telehealth options, a study that analyzed the effectiveness of virtual ABA treatment in young patients with autism was able to determine that a transition from physical in-office appointments to a virtual telehealth plan could be accomplished with minimal interruption in treatment – a critically important feat for applied behavioral analysis.

Despite encouraging results, it’s important to remember that the usefulness of telehealth to a specialty as unique as ABA is better decided on a case-by-case basis, and therapists that have the ability to provide virtual treatment should only continue to offer digital services to patients who show progress in virtual sessions.

Considerations for Telehealth in SLP

While the implementation of telehealth during covid is undeniably necessary, not every form of therapy has had great success in delivering quality care over video. While the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) supports permanent expansions to telehealth, speech-language pathologists, and their patients, have not been reaping the same benefits as other therapy specialties.

Today’s technology transmits sound better than ever, but creating the environment needed to deliver the sound quality and acoustic timbre therapists need to better understand their patient’s progress is anything but accessible.  The challenges posed by transmitting audio, which is often distorted by noise-canceling technology built into our phones and computers, may require expensive equipment to correct.

Also as a result of the limitations of technology, speech-language pathologists are faced with the inability to diagnose many patients through virtual means. So while telehealth may benefit some patients and SLPs after a diagnosis is established, in-person evaluations are still essential in creating an accurate treatment plan.

Raintree Provides the Materials and Methods Needed to Deliver Quality Telehealth Experiences

Here at Raintree, we not only agree with the recommendations of these professional associations to implement permanent telehealth options, but we work hard to provide therapy and rehab practices with the tools they need to deliver quality telemedicine care to their patients. From embedded telehealth options to an interactive patient portal, Raintree’s all-in-one EMR has everything you need to set up your clinic with virtual solutions that meet the needs of your staff and patients.

Interested in ways you can help us champion the continued expansion of telehealth options? APTA, AOTA, and ASHA have created templated letters to fill out and send to Congress, state representatives, as well as other stakeholders. Take a moment to take action, and help us amplify our voices so we will be heard!

Working together, our efforts to advocate for the continued expansion of telehealth in therapy can deliver better access to care and improved quality of life for your patients. Visit our website for more information on how our digital solutions prepare your practice for the future of telehealth, billing, business intelligence, and much more!