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What to Do When a Staff Physical Therapist Calls in Sick

There’s a good chance that you may see more employees using their sick days over the next several months.

Erica McDermott
5 min read
June 25, 2020
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With your updated sick leave policy—and the current hypervigilance around preventing the spread of illness—there’s a good chance that you may see more employees using their sick days over the next several months. And that’s a good thing. Whether you send home an employee who has the sniffles, one of your therapists calls out because he or she is keeping a child home from daycare, or someone on your staff needs to self-quarantine for the full 14 days, everyone should be able to care for themselves and their family members. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that, operationally speaking, the process for covering patient appointments is easy—which is why you’ll want to have a plan in place ahead of time. With that in mind, here are four strategies to consider when deciding how to handle a staff therapist calling in sick:

1. Use per diem therapists.

Depending on your region, you may find that it’s easier than usual to tap temporary or per diem PTs, OTs, and SLPs to fill in for staff therapists on a moment’s notice. And that can prove incredibly useful, especially if you’re already operating at capacity with your current staff members. That said, unless you meet the limited requirements for what was previously referred to as “locum tenens billing,” then you’ll need to be sure the fill-in therapists are credentialed with all of the insurances you accept—or, at the very least, those for the patients he or she will be seeing. 

As WebPT Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer Heidi Jennenga, PT, DPT, ATC, notes here, the best way to ensure all temp staff credentials are on the up and up is to hire temporary staff through a “qualified agency with vetted insurance credentials.” While “this may be a slightly more costly way of doing things compared to simply hiring a friend or associate,” Jannenga believes this is still “your best choice.” Otherwise, you risk not being able to receive payment for your services.

2. Redistribute patient visits to other staff members.

Having your other current—and healthy—staff members pick up the slack for your absent therapist might be more feasible if your practice is just beginning to reopen, considering that some members of your team may not have full caseloads yet. If that’s the case, then spreading the work around your team is likely the easiest path forward. As a first step, consider shifting regular patient visits to therapy assistants and evaluative appointments to other therapists. While all supervision requirements remain in effect—and said supervision must be provided by a licensed therapist—it doesn’t necessarily mean that the supervising therapist must be the one who conducted that patient's initial evaluation (or even the one who supervised the patient’s last appointment). Instead, this is a perfect opportunity for everyone to pitch in.

3. Shift to telehealth sessions.

If the therapist who called out did so as a precaution—as opposed to because he or she is actually sick or caring for a sick family member—then you could consider having that person work from home and schedule telehealth visits with his or her patients. This becomes even easier if you’ve already communicated the benefits of telehealth to existing patients—and established processes and tools to conduct therapy sessions virtually. That way, the groundwork has already been laid and doesn’t need to be handled on the fly. This option will likely work best in conjunction with one of the other options above, as some patients may not be ideal candidates for telehealth—and some may simply prefer to reschedule. 

4. Reschedule existing appointments.

While not ideal by any means, rescheduling patient visits may be the only realistic way to ensure your team can provide excellent care to your patients—while keeping workloads at a manageable level. For longer absences, you’ll hopefully only need to do this for the first day or two, max—just until you can implement a longer-term strategy. If you have a solid plan in place ahead of time, you may not need to reschedule at all. Depending on your clinic setup, however, you may need to let patients know that their scheduled appointment will be with a different therapist or therapy assistant than they’re used to. Otherwise, you risk negatively impacting the patient experience. This might be a good reason to encourage patients to move between staff members regularly, so these types of last-minute transitions don’t feel jarring. Also, as a reminder from Veda Collmer, WebPT’s in-house counsel: You’re not permitted to share any health-related information about an employee, as that is a violation of workplace privacy laws.

Giving staff therapists the flexibility to stay home when they—or their family members—are sick is crucial to employee satisfaction and, particularly in the era of COVID-19, the health and safety of everyone in your clinic. And having a backup plan in place can help make absences less stressful for everyone.


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