COVID-19 drastically altered the fabric of our society—perhaps permanently. Clinic owners saw the biggest immediate impact in the resulting changes to consumer habits, as patients transitioned from in-person to virtual care and cancelled all but their most pressing medical appointments. Clinic staffing and hygiene protocols changed on a dime, too. And while we expect that patient behavior and safety requirements will return to normal as the economy slowly kicks into gear and COVID cases continue to trend downward, some changes will likely stick around for the long haul.
On that note, you may have already observed some of the more long-term (or potentially even permanent) effects of COVID-19 on the rehab therapy patient population. Have you treated any patients who’ve suffered from fatigue and muscle weakness since recovering from the virus? This growing segment of patients likely suffer from Post-Acute Sequelae of COVID-19—also known as PASC or long COVID.
Many patients experience symptoms for weeks—sometimes even months—after the onset of COVID-19.
COVID-19 affects patients in a variety of ways, manifesting with widely different symptoms at widely different levels of severity. But if there’s one thing COVID patients have in common—no matter how mild or severe their illness—it’s that nearly a third of them report experiencing “lingering symptoms a median of 6 months after infection onset.”
Living with PASC
At least, that’s what a small study found in January of this year. Surveyed patients most commonly reported lingering symptoms such as fatigue and loss of smell or taste—though they also reported breathing issues, chest pain, and neurologic symptoms. Patients who withstood a bout of COVID-19 severe enough to require hospitalization most commonly reported fatigue and muscle weakness as lingering symptoms, and roughly 8% of study participants reported struggling with some activities of daily living (ADLs)—such as household chores.
While it’s far too early to make any sweeping conclusions about long COVID (and there’s a huge need for additional research), here are a couple things we know for sure:
- A significant number of COVID-19 patients experience symptoms months after the initial onset of illness; and
- Some of those symptoms affect the musculoskeletal system (e.g., fatigue and muscle weakness).
Rehab therapists have an opportunity to help.
As I mentioned above, a handful of these symptoms are musculoskeletal in nature, which means PTs and OTs are perfectly equipped to step in and treat these patients. Helping patients overcome muscle weakness and improve their ability to complete ADLs is a hallmark of the rehab therapy discipline—and many therapists already have experience treating patients with chronic fatigue. Do you specialize in cardiopulmonary rehabilitative therapy? If so, you may have a huge opportunity in helping post-COVID patients rehab their cardiopulmonary system. All of this is to say that rehab therapists could play a pivotal role in ameliorating population health and improving the lives of millions (yes, millions) of COVID patients.
Bolstering the PT Brand
The PT branding problem has been around for years, and industry thought leaders have kicked around countless ideas for reversing rehab therapy’s status as the “best kept secret” in health care. Stepping up to treat COVID patients may not be the silver bullet everyone’s looking for, but it’s an excellent opportunity for PTs and OTs to take center stage and prove the value of their services and expertise. (Some clinics are already taking that first leap.) It’s looking like a huge number of patients will need help rehabbing from COVID-19, and this could be a great way to directly introduce that large number of patients to the benefits of PT.
Clinics can adjust their marketing campaigns to better target COVID-19 patients.
Resolving to help COVID patients is all well and good—but it won’t mean anything unless you actually get those patients into your clinic. That’s why it’s mission-critical to construct and implement marketing campaigns that are tailored to patients with long COVID. Start by reaching out to your referral sources—or perhaps even members of a local COVID treatment program—to let them know you can assist in treating PASC patients. Then, be sure to notify your current and past patients about your COVID-specific therapy services.
Publicizing New Services Online
Beyond that, make sure your digital marketing efforts account for long COVID rehab services. Update your website with information about PASC treatment—and write a blog post or two on the subject while you’re at it. Post about your long haul services on social media—and consider creating some paid ads to promote these services. Finally, because COVID-19—including long COVID—is a hot topic of conversation around the entire country, consider writing a press release about your services and floating it to local news sources. If you’re quick on the drop, they may be interested in publishing or airing a story about your practice.
COVID-19 may have turned the world on its head, but rehab therapists have many opportunities to adapt to, and overcome, these changes. Not only that, but PTs and OTs stand to make a real difference in patients’ lives—if they’re ready to take the leap.