Physical Therapy and Artificial Intelligence: Interview with Drew Contreras, PT, DPT

Physical Therapy And Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence is the hottest topic of 2023, and the rehabilitation therapy field is no exception.

During episode 8 of the Therapy Matters podcast, CEO Justin Moore of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) mentioned emerging technologies and AI as one of the biggest issues facing physical therapy right now.

To take a deeper dive into the subject of physical therapy and artificial intelligence, we brought in Drew Contreras, PT, DPT. Contreras spent his clinical career in the US Army. While on active duty, he served physical therapist for the Obama administration. Now, Contreras is the Vice President of Clinical Integration and Innovation at the APTA. Let’s dig into his response to the AI boom.

Will AI Replace Physical Therapists?

Contreras says he actually asked ChatGPT whether it was going to replace him as a physical therapist.

The AI platform’s response: “Probably not.”

The answer should come as no surprise to PTs. After all, physical therapy requires human intervention, and manual therapy techniques are unlikely to go away anytime soon. Replacing in-person, hands-on processes isn’t the intent of an AI tool, anyway. So, the short answer to the question is: AI will not be replacing you if you’re a physical therapist.

However, Contreras says there is a caveat to that statement.

A good clinician offering a high level of care to their patients, providing quality evaluations and treatment plans, is at no risk of being replaced by AI. On the other hand, a clinician at a physical therapy practice who offers “cookie cutter” treatment plans to patients and essentially “phones it in,” is likely to be in danger.

If a physical therapist’s entire work is just the programming of exercises, and has nothing to do with progression/regression evaluation or personalized care, that person’s job could be at risk, because, well…

“[AI] can do it better than you,” Contreras says. “Technology will never replace a physical therapist. But a physical therapist who is technologically savvy and educated will replace a physical therapist who is not. And that I am certain of.”

Using AI in Diagnosis and More

AI algorithms have been making headlines with their capacity to produce incredible creative work: from life-like portraits to stylized designs, from corporate emails to poetry… Some have even plugged in AI software prompts to create weekly meal plans or even guide financial decisions.

But what does that have to do with the use of AI in healthcare?

Machine learning is basically pattern recognition. Which means, for example, that AI can be used to help clinicians process huge amounts of data, inform clinical decision-making, or provide patients with basic diagnoses. It sounds like the stuff of the future, right?

Contreras shared a recent example of the advances in AI technologies in the field of radiology. In a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), an “artificial intelligence candidate” was able to pass the rapid radiographic reporting component of the Fellowship of the Royal College of Radiologists examination. Twice.

And compared to the radiologists who took the same test exams, the AI’s results weren’t far behind! “[The humans] were better, but not tremendously,” Contreras says.

What does it mean when healthcare technologies catch up with human practitioners?

It comes down to the numbers. When you look at the daily cost of a radiologist, versus the pennies that it will cost to have an AI do the same job… It’s easy to see where this is going. Eventually, the medical field may lean on AI to analyze and flag basic diagnostic imaging or patient data—and they’ll be faster and more cost-effective than humans.

Thankfully, that’s not something to stress about. In fact, quite the opposite! With a faster diagnosis process enabled by machine intelligence, providers should be able to focus on more complex or hands-on aspects of their specialties, like providing personalized treatment or navigating complicated cases.

“You still have to do the work,” he says. “You’re just enabled with more tools, which is excellent! That’s what we should be striving for as healthcare providers. But if you let it run the system, that’s where you’re gonna run into problems.”

Improving PT with Emerging Technologies

One question that Contreras likes to ask physical therapists who are skeptics of AI is, “What is your gold standard for measuring motion right now?”

For most PTs, the answer is a goniometer. Contreras describes it as “a piece of plastic with a metal rivet and some sharpie marks on it.” The future “gold standard” of motion analysis, Contreras suggests, is to use a a device with a camera, like your phone, and take a picture or video of the person in motion. New mobile technology can then analyze motion capture video with great accuracy and speed.

Contreras says it makes sense for PTs to integrate that kind of emerging technology into their practice.

“It’s faster, it’s easier… The reliability is astronomical compared to standard goniometer measurements,” says Contreras. “So why wouldn’t I use that? Well, [for some people,] it’s ‘Just because I’m not familiar with it.'”

These days, saying “this is how we’ve always done it” could leave your practice lagging behind.

AI Tools and PT Practice Revenue

When it comes to setting clinical goals or making claims for insurance reimbursement, it’s important to document patient outcomes accurately and efficiently. Contreras noted that, in many ways, AI and emerging technologies are going to improve that process. They may play a vital role, too, in the shift toward value-based care.

How can artificial intelligence inform reimbursements?

In other disciplines in the medical field, measuring trends in patient data is frequently tied to lab results. However, that kind of standard measurement has not been as easy to establish in the physical therapy field. In the long run, Contreras projects, AI measurements will allow PT clinics to provide better data for the purposes of patient care and reimbursements.

What about AI tools for Billing and RCM?

With the advanced capabilities of artificial intelligence for digital health, it should come as no surprise that AI can help optimize billing processes, as well. Already, many modern billing and RCM systems use AI automation to help flag potential coding errors or issues that might cause red flags in the claims process. These tools can even detect under billing or over billing, to make sure that rehabilitation practices are getting their maximum payment.

The Future of Physical Therapy and Artificial Intelligence

There are still many questions and concerns around the applications of AI, which Contreras acknowledges. Sooner than later, he says, the academic side of the PT field will grapple with the role of AI in how physical therapists are trained and educated. On the individual level, therapists must resist the urge to cut corners using AI tools. Still, as Contreras sees it, the future of physical therapy will be exciting new terrain.

Contreras suggests therapists should view AI as a tool to augment their work, not as a threat to their role. AI can contribute to more effective treatment plans, provide accurate measures of progress, and streamline billing procedures. AI can facilitate more focused care by taking on administrative tasks, analyzing data, and providing objective measures to optimize treatment strategies. In a nutshell, the future of physical therapy will be about therapists harnessing technology to enhance their services, not being replaced by it.

As an award-winning provider of the only true all-in-one EMR for therapy and rehab, Raintree Systems is no stranger to innovation. Learn how our cutting-edge tools can propel your practice forward. Schedule a demo, today!

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