Rehab therapists have always had to keep a close eye on the healthcare policy developments emanating from our nation’s capitol. And the need for vigilance on the reform front will certainly continue into 2017—and beyond. From the move to a value-based payment system and adoption of alternative payment models to possible changes to the Affordable Care Act, these real—and potential—developments will no doubt affect how PTs deliver patient care and the manner in which they get reimbursed.

But, these changes—and the overall air of unpredictability in the US healthcare industry—certainly didn’t temper the enthusiasm and spirit of the thousands upon thousands of rehab therapy professionals who converged last week in sunny San Antonio, Texas, during the APTA’s 2017 Combined Sections Meeting (CSM). It was quite a sight to see throngs of PTs, OTs, and students take over the Alamo City for three jam-packed days. And with so many young conference-goers in attendance, I’d say the future of health care—and rehab therapy in particular—is quite bright. After all, they’re already immersing themselves in the trends and issues that’ll shape their profession in the years to come. On that note, here’s a rundown of the top-trending topics from this year’s conference.

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Technology’s Role in Leveraging Data

Turn to a robust EMR.

Flying your car to work and cooking pizza in a matter of seconds may not be a reality just yet—thanks for nothing, Back to the Future. Still, technology is integral to modern industry—and that includes the healthcare industry. Electronic medical records (EMRs) in particular will continue to take on more prominence in a value-based system. In fact, enlisting a dependable, top-of-the-line EMR within your clinical practice not only creates greater workflow efficiencies, but also keeps your data secure and helps you improve clinical and business performance. Additionally, EMRs can make your life easier with built-in scheduling functionality and integrated billing capabilities. But, if the discussions at CSM 2017 are any indication, it’s arguably just as important that therapy providers enlist a system with built-in outcomes data-tracking.

Use your data to improve patient care.

During a session titled, “Emerging Issues in Medicare and Health Care Reform,” Heather Smith, PT, MPH, likened outcomes tracking within an EMR to collecting personal fitness data via wearable devices like Fitbits. In the same way that exercisers can create tailored running or workout routines based on that data, PTs can tailor—and adjust—patient care based on the data they collect from a wide variety of outcome measures. “All of a sudden, quality improvement doesn’t look that bad,” said Smith, who serves as the APTA’s program director of quality. “Technology will be used to decrease our burden, so we can focus more on patients to achieve better outcomes.”

Data’s Part in Lowering Healthcare Costs

Focus on the triple aim.

And that’s really what it’s all about, anyway. As we’ve discussed time and again on the WebPT Blog—and as multiple CSM speakers hammered home during their presentations—outcomes tracking serves the triple aim of improving care quality, increasing access, and lowering costs. And those rehab therapists who commit to tracking patient outcomes will empower their profession to take on a greater role in managing patients at the population level versus merely the patient level, said Roshunda Drummond-Dye, JD. But it’s not some quick, overnight undertaking.

Employ a standardized outcomes tracking process.

Drummond-Dye, who serves as the APTA’s director of regulatory affairs, said therapists can’t simply track any and all data; it’s got to be “accurate, aggregated data” that assesses patient and therapist performance through standardized outcomes. More specifically, therapists should be collecting data that benefits providers outside the rehab therapy realm. “Taking these steps will help you provide better, optimal care and better manage your payer contracts.”

The Importance of Provider-to-Provider Teamwork

Commit to cooperation.

As I mentioned above, integrating a teamwork-first philosophy across the healthcare continuum ultimately will encourage different speciality providers to begin speaking the same language—and, more importantly, to be on the same page when treating patients. And this approach to care will only become more and more common as insurers continue to roll out new alternative payment models (APMs)—Medicare aims to have 50% of all fee-for-service payments come from APMs by 2018—to eliminate wasteful healthcare spending. Speaking of payment trends, Smith said adoption of the Comprehensive Care for Joint Replacement (CJR) bundled payment model—which requires care coordination among providers working in clinics, skilled nursing facilities (SNFs), and hospitals involved in a single episode of care—will continue to grow in scope.

See the writing on the payment bundle wall.

That’s because all total hip and knee replacement episodes—including post-op rehab services—will eventually fall under the CJR. And as we’ve explained in previous blog posts, all providers involved in a single episode of care must work under a single budget. As Smith indicated, this is a big consideration as we inch closer to a full-out value-based payment system. “It’s important to recognize that [CJR] will be an integral part of the overall care continuum,” she said. “We will be challenged to raise the bar and think of populations of patients [to achieve better outcomes].”

There you have it—some of the most-buzzed-about topics at CSM 2017. Did you make it to San Antonio this year? Which presentations caught your eye and left you wanting more? Tell us in the comment section below. Finally, don’t forget to visit the WebPT Blog on Thursday for a recap of a few of my favorite sessions.

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