Range of Motion

Physical therapy among industries moving its business model online.

TELEHEALTH FOR THE LONG HAUL Dr. Scott Gray and Dr. James Porco (bottom right) say virtual physical therapy visits are part of their future business models.

Though the last decade has witnessed a general shift toward internet-based businesses, some industries seemed destined to retain their in-real-life operations. Not anymore. Even physical therapy—that most hands-on of occupations—is moving toward telehealth.

“It’s part of our future business model,” says Dr. Scott Gray, a Fort Myers physical therapist who owns the Back in Motion physical therapy clinics. “With telehealth, we can reach anyone worldwide, not just in the Fort Myers market.”

But doesn’t physical therapy require an in-person examination? Not necessarily, Gray says. “A lot of times, if you listen closely enough, your patient will tell you what’s wrong. They can explain what happened, what makes it better and what makes it worse. We can also take them through movement tests over video.”

Still, as with all telemedicine, physical therapy via online tools has considerations that don’t affect in-person appointments. For one, not all states allow physical therapists to provide their services via telehealth. There are additional billing questions to factor in when dealing with insurance payments and telehealth, and providers need to ensure that they’re operating using HIPPA-compliant technology. Physical therapists who offer online appointments should also check with their malpractice insurance carrier to make sure their liability coverage extends to telehealth.

Surprisingly, physical therapy via the internet is not a product of the pandemic. The American Physical Therapy Association had already issued a statement in favor of telehealth long before COVID entered the common vernacular. Still, the pandemic helped increase both awareness and acceptance of online physical therapy.

“Telehealth has given us a fantastic opportunity to help those at risk and keep them in motion,” says Dr. James Porco, a Southwest Florida-based physical therapist. “We’ve been able to get patients back to health without leaving their homes.”

Now that patients have seen the convenience of online physical therapy, many are sticking to it even as COVID restrictions are lifted. “They’re realizing that they don’t have to sit in Naples traffic for 40 minutes or take off half a day for an appointment,” Porco says.

Besides convenience, telehealth physical therapy has other unexpected upsides. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, patients who receive physical therapy through virtual appointments are more likely to maintain their home exercise programs. It also offers physical therapists an opportunity to see a patient’s home and discuss mobility and falling challenges. And a patient’s family or caregivers can participate in a telehealth appointment, too. This is especially useful when patients have family members who need to stay home because of COVID risks.
Between these benefits and the convenience, practitioners are predicting that physical therapy delivered virtually will last long after the shutdown. “I think telehealth is here to stay,” Gray says.

Photo Credit: Kevin Bires