From wearable ECG monitors, to sci-fi movie-looking exosuits, to popular fitness tracking devices that fit on your finger, the number of exciting advancements and trends in PT technology continues to grow. These innovations offer new opportunities for improved diagnosis, treatment, patient engagement, and even greater data analytics to improve payer reimbursement and value-based care (VBC) initiatives. So strap in as this post goes to infinity and beyond for the newest tech innovations hitting the PT galaxy.
The Evolution of Digital Health Care
Smartphone and iPad apps for physical therapy professionals and patients have been around for some time, but that does not change the ever present innovation in this space. Many apps are inexpensive—or even free—and provide handy resources like physiotherapy glossaries, exercise videos, orthopedic diagnosis tools, clinical tests, and even 360-degree visual anatomy.
But the digital healthcare space is more than just an application on the phone or computer. It provides an adjunct to treatment and successful practice for today’s providers. Healthcare practices are becoming more and more open to the usefulness of digital products for HEP prescription, remote therapeutic monitoring (RTM), and VBC. Furthermore, age is becoming less and less of an excuse for not leveraging technology in practice. In our recent RTM webinar, the bulk of WebPT RTM patients that were referenced fell into the late-50 to early-70 age range, contradicting the stigma that technology usage is only for the young. With that in mind the first group of tech innovations to jump into can be worn by just about anyone.
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The Wave of Wearable Technology
The wearable technology sphere has had a bit of a moment the last few years. Devices have been out for some time to assist patients with neurological disorders, but the technology is getting more advanced, less expensive, and more functional for everyday living.
Put a sleeve on it.
What would wearable technology be without something that can actually be worn? Cipher Skin’s sleeves assist the treating provider in a multitude of areas like patient adherence to their HEP, biomechanical analysis for motion capture, and biometric data collection. Speaking of motion capture, this tech innovation has made waves in sports performance and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Sensor technology is continuing to rise.
Another category worth mentioning under the umbrella of wearable tech would be the exponential growth in sensor technology for a variety of rehabilitation uses. Today’s sensors can be hidden in socks for pacing, cadence and foot contact in running, or worn in clothing for injury prevention and biometric data collection. Possibly even more exciting is the growing field of diabetic wearables for blood glucose monitoring making exercise participation safer and more effective.
Fall for these prevention devices.
Puns aside, falls are the real deal, accounting for 56% of total unintentional injury deaths in individuals aged 75 to 84. To grapple with this issue and work on prevention, a slew of fall detection devices exist today as well as systems to analyze and prevent future falls. Lastly in this tech space, the Hip Guard uses motion sensor technology to prevent injury to the hips should a fall occur.
The Robot Revolution
The mention of robots often brings to mind the large machines automakers have employed to manufacture cars, or maybe sci-fi thrillers like iRobot or Transformers. But, the rehab world has added its own spin on what working with robots can do to unlock human potential in injury rehabilitation.
Strap in for a wild ride.
The Ekso suit has been on the market for some time now and has opened up further innovation. Joining this exoskeleton device, systems like ReWalk employ novel tech for neuro-based rehab. Take for example the ReWalk exoskeleton—fashioned for patients with spinal cord injury—or the ReWalk Exo-Suit which provides functional electrical stimulation (FES) based technology to improve gait for stroke rehabilitation.
The evolution of technology utilizing this robotic exoskeleton concept has seen further growth with another new player on the scene: Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL). This technology is based on concepts derived from neuroplasticity and neural connections from skin to brain—and back again. In this instance, it’s used to provide machine learning and cortical communication to the extremities for gait training.
Run with robots.
You’ve probably heard of anti-gravity and underwater treadmills, but get ready for Lokomat, a robotic treadmill that allows patients who suffer from neurological conditions to engage in task-specific repetitive movement, thus helping them regain or improve their ability to walk. (Rusk Pediatric Physical Therapy department in New York is currently using this cutting-edge treadmill.) To use this innovative piece of equipment, the therapist suspends the patient over the treadmill using a harness. Then, the therapist fits the patient’s legs into the treadmill’s robotic legs. A computer then personalizes the pace of the treadmill and measures the patient’s response and progress.
Lend a helping hand.
New technology from robotic healthcare companies like Hocoma or Tyromotion, provide robot assisted upper extremity rehabilitation for a multitude of conditions ranging from severely impaired stroke victims to fine motor control mechanisms in children and adults. These devices are changing the prognosis and speed of recovery for many patients.
Robotic limb prosthetics is another burgeoning tech innovation. Here, the research focuses on more than just a prosthetic limb but a robotic arm using machine learning to function as a normal hand would. Similar functionalities can be seen in lower extremity prosthetics where robotics assist amputees negotiating steps and learning to walk again.
AI and Health Care
Speaking of machine learning in robots, artificial intelligence (AI) has been a big buzz word the last few years. As seen in the robotic arms and exoskeletons mentioned previously, AI also provides rehab therapists a way to predict outcomes and guide clinical practice. The VBC landscape is here to stay and AI can improve clinics’ ability to show their value by guiding decision making processes that are going to benefit the patient and achieve optimal outcomes at lower costs to everyone.
Telehealth and digital musculoskeletal (MSK) solutions are also implementing AI into their programming. Take for example, applications like Exer Health or ViFive. These digital platforms use AI to observe patients performing exercise at home and report data through the application to the provider on adherence, proper technique, and other information useful for the plan of care.
Virtual Reality in Rehab Therapy
The use of video game technology in PT continues to expand with virtual reality (VR) rehab—with an expected growth in VR in health care of over 27% from 2021 to 2028. Showing promise for a multitude of physical therapy related fields, the gamification of PT through VR can improve patient adherence, outcomes, and speed of recovery. Companies like Neuro Rehab VR or Virtualis VR give PTs a bevy of choice and practice variation to implement this cutting edge tool.
MSK Ultrasound for PT Use
For better or worse, ultrasound has been available for PTs for what may seem like ages, but more recently, diagnostic ultrasound has advanced to a point where the equipment is more accurate, more portable, and less expensive making it a perfect tool for PTs to use in their clinic. This is further strengthened by direct access in outpatient care. If a clinic is looking for a diversified revenue stream that will afford more clinical utility, then MSK ultrasound just may be the ticket.
Concussion management—and prevention—has been a hot-button topic for a while now. After all, more and more medical professionals are acknowledging the long-term risks associated with repeat and/or untreated head injuries. In 2010, Chase Curtiss developed Sway, a techy solution to help “health professionals…administer objective balance and reaction time testing in virtually any setting.” With Sway, PTs can not only ensure their patients are healthy on the field and off, but also make better care decisions to improve outcomes based on real-time objective data.
While Sway will provide objective data through balance, cognition, and functional measures, another product uses a sensor to aid in early detection of concussions due to whiplash injury. This device will give providers real time data on head and neck movements to treat existing and prevent further injury.
Rehab therapy is, and always will be, a hands-on field, but that doesn’t mean technology can’t play a pivotal role. Advances in technology—whether through robotics, bionics, or digital software solutions—help therapists diagnose more precisely, increase clinic efficiencies, and reach more patients. Furthermore, such technologies improve patient engagement and HEP compliance. All of this boils down to a better patient experience, which in turn can lead to improved outcomes. Talk about next level.
Have any emerging trends or tech innovations to share? Drop a line in the comment section below.