Regardless of what you believe to be the societal and social implications of physical distancing, most people have—at least somewhat—adjusted to allowing for six feet of extra space between themselves and others. However, while it may be easy to scoot to one side of a wide sidewalk to let someone else pass by, social distancing in the clinic comes with a lot more challenges. Not only are patients probably not yet used to navigating a therapy environment in this manner, but the space itself also may not be totally conducive to allowing for such a wide berth. With all this in mind, here are five creative ways to promote social distancing in your clinic (adapted from this resource). 

1. Have patients check in for their appointments outside of your office.

Depending on the size of your clinic, it may be a good idea to have your patients check in for their appointments—and wait—outside of your building. You could ask patients to call when they arrive, and then have a front-office staff member meet them outdoors to check them in, perform any necessary screening tests (e.g., a temp and symptom check), and collect any additional patient information. Then, you can call when you’re ready for them to come inside and start their appointment.

Digital intake forms can be incredibly helpful during this time, too, as you’ll already have patient demographic and insurance card information on file, which means you won’t need to collect documents during this encounter. On that note, touchless payment processing is also a huge convenience. (WebPT offers both; simply leave a comment at the bottom of this post if you’d like to learn more.)

2. Put marks on the ground to help patients visualize a six-foot distance.

Depending on your patients’ spatial reasoning ability, they may need some assistance visualizing—and maintaining—six feet of distance. For that reason, consider putting marks on the ground to indicate where patients can stand to, say, leave adequate space between themselves and the staff member who is collecting their payment, or another patient who is performing exercises in the same room. 

Just remember that six feet of distance means six feet in all directions. I’ve seen way too many instances of marks that are six feet apart in one direction but only about two feet apart in the other.

3. Move exercise equipment and chairs to allow for extra room.

In addition to putting marks on the ground, consider removing some pieces of furniture and exercise equipment to allow for more spacing between the items that remain. More empty space means fewer opportunities for patients to crowd one another. 

4. Stagger patient appointments. 

While we know that you want to get your practice up to full capacity ASAP, you may need to stagger appointments in order to ensure that your patients—and staff members—feel safe coming in. While there is no magic algorithm for determining how many patients to have in the clinic at once—as so much of it depends on the space and layout of your office as well as how you transition patients through their sessions—we recommend starting off conservatively and adjusting as necessary based on how your patients use the space and how time consuming it is for your staff to properly clean all surfaces between appointments. You may find that you can have several patients in the clinic at the same time and simply alternate the order in which they move through your facility. For example, you may start some patients in the gym area with guided exercise while others start with manual therapy in the treatment area (rather than starting all patients in the treatment area).  

5. Share policies in advance. 

Regardless of the policies you decide to implement to help your patients and staff socially distance, be sure to communicate your intentions and expectations before patients arrive for their appointments. Doubling up on this communication may even be helpful. For example, have your front-office staff verbally share new processes with patients when confirming their appointments, and then follow up with an email containing clear written instructions for navigating the situation. If you expect patients to wear masks, for example, make that point clear—and it wouldn’t hurt to have extra masks on hand, because someone will almost certainly forget. Same goes if you decide to limit the number of people who can accompany a patient to an appointment. If family members aren’t welcome to come along—or even wait inside—it’s important to share this information before the patient and his or her family arrive.

Any time you introduce new processes, clear communication is paramount. So, before you implement any changes to promote social distancing in your clinic, be sure to loop in your team and give them the opportunity to ask questions and voice objections. The staff members who are interfacing directly with patients will likely have valuable insight to share about patient behavior and appointment flow. 

On the subject of communication, you may also want to make it a point to share with patients how your team is handling safety precautions—for example, going through regular health screenings and washing hands and/or changing gloves between patients. Doing so may minimize patients’ anxiety about receiving hands-on treatment and exercising in a shared space.