For all of the different medical jobs that seem well suited to telemedicine, physical therapy doesn’t appear to be one of them. But perhaps that’s only because no one has really explored it in depth. Perhaps there are plenty of ways to utilize telemedicine in a physical therapy environment if the right people stepped back and gave the idea more serious thought.
According to Scientific American, telemedicine is starting to catch on with physical therapists. They are therapists who, for whatever reason, feel like they cannot provide proper treatment under current operational models. They are turning to telemedicine to either supplement their practices or completely transform them.
The Insurance Issue
One of the biggest things leading physical therapists to telemedicine is the insurance issue. Health insurance companies want volume. They want therapists to see as many patients as possible in the shortest amount of time. Unfortunately, their reimbursement rates are really not all that good.
This has put therapists in a similar position as family medicine practitioners: they do not have enough time to provide appropriate care. They either have to maintain volume to keep insurance companies happy and reimbursements coming in, or they have to figure out some other way.
Apparently, physical therapists are beginning to eschew health insurance. They would rather adopt a ‘cash on the barrel’ model that allows them to spend more time with individual patients than continue doing business the insurance company way. And according to Scientific American, some of them are looking at telemedicine as a way to balance things out.
For example, moving to a cash-only business limits patient volume. Your typical patient is more likely to see a therapist that accepts insurance. This is fine in the sense that it frees up therapists to spend more time with smaller numbers of patients, but it also hurts the bottom line. Telemedicine is a way to make up for some of that lost volume.
Treating Rural Patients
Scientific American says that many of the patients that physical therapists treat via telemedicine are patients who live in rural areas. This makes good sense. It is hard enough for rural environment to attract GPs and family medicine clinicians let alone physical therapists.
Offering physical therapy via telemedicine ends up a win-win for both sides. The physical therapist has an opportunity to treat patients in rural areas while the patients have access to PT. Neither has to spend hours driving to and from the city.
The telemedicine model also involves lower overhead. All a therapist needs is some computer equipment and reliable network. He/she could double patient volume without having to expand facilities. That’s very good for the bottom line.
Telemedicine Proving Its Worth
Just as people were skeptical about locum tenens physical therapy back in the 70s, you might be skeptical about telemedicine in physical therapy. After all, PT tends to be very hands-on. Yet telemedicine is proving its worth.
According to Scientific American, a Duke University study looking at one particular telemedicine system showed that patients do just as well receiving remote care. The study looked at patients recovering from knee replacement surgeries and receiving either in-person or telemedicine therapy.
Those patients receiving telemedicine presented the same benchmarks of recovery at three-month follow-up. They reported the expected pain reduction and improved mobility in daily tasks. Most importantly, the telemedicine group experienced fewer post-surgery hospitalizations. Cost savings for the telemedicine group averaged just over $2,700 per patient.
The numbers say it all. Physical therapy and telemedicine seem to be made for one another. Now let us see how quickly telemedicine in PT catches on.