Ever since the novel coronavirus reached US shores, the entire physical therapy profession has been caught in a tumultuous storm of change and uncertainty. But here’s the thing about storms: eventually, the rain stops, and the clouds disappear. While there might be some leftover damage, we can always rebuild on what was lost and create something bigger and better. Unfortunately, the pandemic storm hasn’t cleared up just yet. However, there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon: the average number of PT patients seen in the US is trending upward—as is the number of initial evaluations. So, if PTs start thinking about how to capitalize on their value in a post-pandemic world now, there will certainly be sunnier days ahead.
To that end, here’s why physical therapists will be crucial providers post-COVID—and how they can leverage their position to further enhance their value prop:
Physical therapy is crucial for patients recovering from severe cases of COVID-19.
We already know that PTs have something unique to offer in the way of COVID-19 treatment: recovery therapy. Due to the novel nature of COVID-19, the medical community has been learning a lot on the fly with regard to disease progression, treatment, and recovery. But, one thing’s for certain: physical therapy can be vital to patients who are coming off ventilators and being released from hospitals. As this article from the University of Buffalo states, “At least half of all patients who survive treatment in an intensive care unit will experience at least one of a triad of problems associated with post-intensive care syndrome, or PICS.” The article goes on to reference a factsheet from the American Thoracic Society, which states “PICS can manifest as problems with physical function, cognition, and mental health.”
Due to the lack of awareness surrounding PICS, patients who are discharged from the ICU may not receive the proper care to address these issues. However, physical therapists are perfectly positioned to help patients with functional deficits—and thanks to at-home and telehealth options, therapists can treat those patients without asking them to come into the clinic. For a more clinical dive into how PTs can treat COVID-recovered patients experiencing decreased functionality, check out this recently-published research paper from the Physical Therapy Journal.
Telehealth offers greater flexibility for PT patients.
Speaking of telehealth, virtual services have already proven to be a gamechanger for rehab therapy practices. Remote treatment provides a way to bridge the gap between social distancing recommendations and in-person care. And now that providers and patients alike have gotten a taste of the telehealth life, the demand for virtual services will likely linger long after the pandemic. Not only does telehealth offer a safe alternative to in-clinic treatment for ill or immunosuppressed patients, but it also provides all patients with increased flexibility and access to care.
Imagine: A patient calls your practice at the last minute to cancel his or her appointment because of car troubles, inclement weather, or other obligations. Instead of rescheduling the appointment—or worse, dinging the patient with a cancelation fee—you can offer a telehealth visit, which he or she can complete using a mobile device or computer. Even before the pandemic, about 70% of PT patients dropped out of therapy before completing their full course of care. Offering a workaround for canceled appointments could significantly reduce that percentage while boosting your practice’s revenue.
Telehealth will only stick around with advocacy.
That said, virtual care’s moment in the sun is all thanks to relaxed payer restrictions on PT telehealth services—and in some cases, those relaxations are temporary. To ensure they can continue offering this flexible solution, PTs must advocate for telehealth’s permanence. For that reason, the APTA, WebPT, and other organizations are asking physical therapists—and their patients—to support the CONNECT for Health Act and the Outpatient Therapy Modernization and Stabilization Act, both of which call for easing “restrictions on telehealth coverage under the Medicare program.” We know PTs are more than capable of providing services virtually, and now we must ensure payers know this, too. So, if you haven’t already, be sure to download and send this free advocacy template supporting these important pieces of legislation.
PT can help alleviate the economic strain on the US healthcare system.
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t just taken a physical toll; it’s had a very real—and very damaging—economic impact as well. While it’s too early to say how significant that toll will be in the long run, a study conducted by Wakely Consulting Group (and backed by America’s Health Insurance Plans [AHIP]) estimates that “the costs to the health care system from COVID-19 could range from $56 billion to $556 billion over the next two years.” This financial hit will be felt by federal payers, commercials insurers, and patients alike—and it could lead to higher insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs.
Amid all of this, patients will continue needing treatment for chronic pain and musculoskeletal diseases unrelated to COVID-19, and payers will likely be looking to cut corners on spending to mitigate the costs. That’s where physical therapy comes in: not only is PT a more cost-effective treatment option for these conditions, but it’s also much safer than prescription opioids and surgeries—with excellent outcomes, to boot. In the recent past, we’ve seen major payers improve PT reimbursement rates and patient access to physical therapy based on these facts. (More on that here.) But physical therapists can’t expect payers to continue taking this sort of action without the data to back it up. So, it’s more important than ever to track patient outcomes and prove the efficacy of PT as an alternative to more cost-prohibitive treatments.
There will be a renewed focus on wellness and preventive services.
While scrolling through Instagram recently, I saw a text post that caught my eye. To paraphrase the post, it talked about how COVID-19 has taught us to not take our health and wellness for granted. I couldn’t smash the “like” button fast enough—and judging by the number of positive reactions I saw in the comments, the author certainly wasn’t alone in his or her thinking. As the number of COVID cases declines, the demand for general health and wellness services will undoubtedly increase. But more than that, patients will be looking for ways to bounce back from the stress and physical toll the pandemic has placed on all of us. Many people have been cooped up inside—unable to do their normal exercise routines or hunched over a laptop as they work from home. For this reason, practices should promote and capitalize on the unique health and wellness services they offer, such as:
- personal training,
- nutrition counseling,
- wellness screenings,
- exercise classes, and
- guided meditation.
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That said, many non-PTs also offer these services, and competition will be steep as more and more businesses reopen. But physical therapy practices have a distinct advantage, and this is where the value of PT-led wellness services really shines through. Because physical therapists are, first and foremost, healthcare providers, they’re already well-versed in the ins and outs of disease control, which could alleviate patient anxieties over safety and sanitization practices. So, PT practices should definitely emphasize this when promoting their wellness services.
Physical therapists are on the verge of a new era: from the rise of telehealth to the public’s increased focus on health and wellness, the COVID-19 storm has brought a rainbow of opportunity to rehab therapists. After all, the skies may be gray right now, but every cloud has a silver lining.