The coronavirus pandemic was a catalyst for a new wave of regulatory changes that expanded the rehab therapist toolbox almost overnight. Most recently, CMS made telehealth more widely accessible to rehab therapy providers. (Hallelujah!) While the industry has been fighting for this privilege for years, the swift change cast many providers into the uncharted waters of remote care with very little time to prepare. And now—after those providers implemented entirely new technology systems in record time so they could take advantage of telehealth—states are starting to ease their stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders. As more patients return to in-clinic treatment, many rehab therapists are wondering how telehealth services will fit into their practice models in the coming months and years.
We know telehealth will never replace hands-on rehab therapy care. However, when used in combination with in-person visits, telehealth can be an asset to providers during this transitional phase—and well beyond it. Here’s how:
It ensures patient and staff safety.
Yes, COVID-19 restrictions have begun to loosen. But this does not mean the threat has completely subsided. And this has left many clinics in the lurch, unable to immediately scale up operations to full capacity due to safety concerns. For the time being, the CDC has issued specific guidelines to reduce the spread of infection in healthcare settings as those facilities start to reopen. These measures include maintaining six feet of space between individuals and installing physical barriers or partitions in waiting rooms—two things that are impossible to implement if clinics ramp patient volume back up to pre-COVID levels.
Telehealth can help reduce the number of patients and providers in the clinic at any one time.
Naturally, therapy providers are anxious to return their clinic operations to normal—or as close to normal as possible—but with the threat of COVID-19 still looming, that’s probably a ways off. In the meantime, practices must do a bit of operational re-swizzling—not only to give staff and patients peace of mind should they opt to resume in-person care, but also to ensure providers can meet patients where they are.
This could mean:
- Staggering patient schedules,
- Expanding clinic hours,
- Doubling down on sanitation standards,
- Checking patients’ temperatures at the door, and
- Offering virtual visits whenever possible—whether exclusively or in combination with in-person visits.
High-risk patients can continue receiving care from the safety of their own homes.
Virtual care is a safe way for therapists to continue serving patients who may have to stay home because they are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19—or because they are part of a high-risk population. Uncomfortable as this may be for providers, one of their top priorities should be curtailing the spread of infectious disease—and having remote care options on standby will help ensure care continuity while keeping other patients and staff members safe.
It meets evolving patient demands.
Even after the crisis is behind us, virtual care is something the rehab industry as a whole should strive to incorporate into the care equation. After all, now that patients have realized it’s a viable alternative to in-person visits, the demand for it will only continue to grow. While many states are “reopening,” that doesn’t mean everyone is ready to dive right back into life as we knew it—and that’s especially true for the aforementioned high-risk populations.
Today’s patients want convenience—whether or not they are required to stay home.
Plus, the flexibility telehealth affords to patients—regardless of whether they remain home-bound—is attractive in a variety of situations, something the team at Summit Physical Therapy can attest to. “Our patients were very excited to see that we were able to adapt quickly and operate off-site at the onset of this pandemic and [and that we could] continue providing care through a telehealth option,” said Jay Cherok, PT, DPT, Cert. MSKUS, co-founder of Summit Physical Therapy. “Summit PT is currently utilizing a hybrid model of in-clinic and telehealth visits to our patients [as] appropriate to minimize direct interaction and keep the curve flattened. As we move through this pandemic and into the future, we hope to continue offering telehealth as an adjunct to in-clinic visits as a means of providing quality care at greater convenience to our patients.”
Telehealth can help rehab therapists access patients who otherwise may never receive treatment.
Beyond being important in the current situation, telehealth also affords rehab therapists the opportunity to reach patients they may not otherwise be able to treat. And considering that 90% of patients who could benefit from physical therapy aren’t receiving it, telehealth could be key to helping PTs, OTs, and SLPs meet more of those patients where they are.
It supports revenue diversification and helps keep clinics viable.
When the outbreak hit our nation, the healthcare industry was largely caught by surprise—and rehab therapy practices suffered more than many other practitioners, as rehab therapists didn’t have many viable options to continue seeing patients and billing for services. The phrase, “don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” never seemed more relevant.
Thanks to recent—albeit long-overdue—relaxations on telehealth restrictions, practices have been given the opportunity to diversify their services, which has opened up additional revenue streams that otherwise would have remained untapped. And while telehealth does have its limitations, it helped clinics stay afloat when they otherwise may have closed for good.
Telehealth visit revenue can help offset lower-than-normal in-clinic appointment revenue.
In addition to reducing administrative costs, offering telehealth as an option can help offset the revenue loss that inevitably comes with limiting patient volumes. After all, while many clinics will have to restrict their number of concurrent in-clinic appointments, there’s no limit on the number of concurrent telehealth appointments they can schedule (aside from limitations presented by their telehealth platform and Internet bandwidth). Plus, as we pointed out above, offering a variety of services through both in-person and virtual channels is very appealing to today’s patient-consumers—and it may make rehab therapy a more attractive path for patients who would otherwise balk at frequent in-office visits (whether or not there’s an active pandemic). According to Advisory Board’s “Virtual Visits Consumer Choice Survey”—which was conducted well before any of us had even heard of COVID-19—77% of patients want access to virtual care. As we’ve all witnessed, the current global situation has only magnified that.
Being prepared to meet this demand can help providers improve the patient experience, and as a result, boost their patient retention rates—one of the keys to a clinic’s long-term viability. After all, high churn rates are not only financially taxing, but can also put a serious damper on referrals from patients and other providers.
Virtual care options like telehealth have the power to support business continuity strategies now and in the future—if implemented correctly, that is. If the new regulations take permanent hold—and it’s looking like they may—rehab therapists have a prime opportunity to optimize and diversify their care options to not only deliver a better patient experience, but also better prepare for the unexpected.
“I think telehealth will most definitely remain a powerful tool in rehab therapy and the healthcare industry as a whole,” said Cherok. “Now that the general public has had a taste of the efficacy, convenience, and value that telehealth has to offer, I don’t think they will go backward. Telehealth gives physical therapists an efficient way to provide timely interventions to patients who otherwise may wait to seek help for their ailments.”
Have questions about the benefits of telehealth? Simply leave a comment below, and we will do our best to provide an answer.