Physical Therapy Moves to Telehealth
In the past, telehealth has mainly been used for primary care or to reach rural patients unable to attend in-person appointments. Over the course of this year, however, telehealth has evolved to become a mainstream medium of treatment and communication between healthcare providers and patients. The pandemic ushered in widespread adoption of telehealth, across specialties, as both healthcare practitioners and patients sought virtual care as a safe alternative to in-person care.
While certain specialties were able to easily adapt to virtual care, the transition to telehealth for physical therapists posed additional challenges. For treatment that requires primarily hands-on manipulation, social distancing created barriers to care for practitioners and patients. The initial strategy of simply sending patients home with exercises fell short in providing the accountability and support needed for these patients to see consistent progress in recovery.
However, telehealth appointments have quickly emerged as a viable alternative to in-person care for physical therapy. The real-time support of a physical therapist enables patients to actively receive the care they require for recovery. Here, we break down the various PT services that can be administered via telehealth, technology requirements, and the benefits of incorporating telehealth into physical therapy care.
Physical Therapy Telehealth Basics
✓ Technology and HIPAA-Requirements
Providing telehealth services for physical therapy requires a platform capable of live, interactive audio and visual transmissions between patient and provider. For physical therapists specifically, providing virtual services requires some basic software:
- HIPAA-compliant telehealth platform
- EHR for chart notes
- Stable internet connection
- Laptop, computer, or mobile device to host sessions
When looking for HIPAA-compliance in a telehealth tool, there is no need to search for an add-on to what you already use to run your business. Choosing an integrated EHR and telehealth platform that is fully HIPAA compliant ensures that your client’s private health information is protected every step of the way.
✓ Insurance Coverage for PT Telehealth
While insurance reimbursement for telehealth services was primarily provided to medical doctors, there has been a dramatic rise in the reimbursement for virtual specialty services, including physical therapy. Within the United States, each state maintains its own jurisdiction with respect to the administration of telehealth services, including that by physical therapists. We recommend reviewing your state laws and regulations, as well as the guidance of your state practicing body, before implementing telehealth services in your care. Moreover, we recommend confirming with your liability insurance provider that your professional liability insurance covers telehealth services for physical therapy.
While this makes it challenging to know if your client is covered for telehealth services, helping patients verify their insurance can be beneficial for both parties. By confirming coverage, your client is more likely to book sessions and continue with care, without the fear of receiving large bills from their insurer. In addition, for healthcare providers, confirming coverage upfront will prevent any delays or denials, ensuring timely reimbursement for your business. As insurance coverage varies both by insurance payer plan and policy, it’s important that benefits are verified for each client. Providers need to call the insurance company on behalf of each individual client, in order to confirm that telehealth PT services will be covered. Doing so will also allow you to communicate insurance payment terms with your client, preventing any misunderstanding in the future.
Read more about billing for telehealth physical therapy services here.
✓ Adapting Services for Virtual Care
As a traditionally hands-on treatment, physical therapists have had to adapt the structure of their sessions to maintain the same quality during virtual sessions as in-person. For example, most patients do not have the therapy equipment they commonly use with therapists in hospitals and clinics. By using items they already have at home, it can increase motivation and future retention of exercises by attaching certain exercises with items at home. Or, it may be helpful to provide clients with video or picture demonstrations of the exercises prior to the appointment; this way, clients are able to familiarize themselves individually, and then come to the appointment with questions you can work through together.
Telehealth also has the ability to increase family and patient engagement with physical therapy. Family members can be an active member of a patient's healthcare team, and by having them involved in virtual treatment sessions you give them the opportunity to have more of a role. Patient education and safety education is going to be a very important factor that is emphasised in the initial PT telehealth evaluation. Having a family member in the session increases the accountability of the patient in the ownership of their own safety and health. By educating both the patient and their family member, you are giving them the knowledge and improving their health literacy then in turn can prevent future injuries.
Benefits of Using Telehealth for Physical Therapy
Initial concerns of the efficacy and tolerability of telehealth for physical therapy patients have been put to rest; after over a year of leveraging telehealth services as a safe and convenient option, patients are finding their healthcare needs are still being met.
✓ Increased Convenience for PT Patients
Telehealth makes it easy for virtually anyone who needs physical therapy to receive it. Taking time out of a workday, exposure to disease, pure distance, or trying to find childcare are all common reasons patients don’t make appointments or have to cancel often. With telehealth, none of these have to be a concern, as patients can join virtual appointments from the comfort of their own home.
For physical therapy specifically, telehealth allows providers to provide insight on at-home exercise programs; therapists can actually see the patient in their home environment, understand what they are capable of doing from home, and counsel them on the most effective care plan possible. Additionally, physical therapists working with clients in-person will often see multiple patients at once; telehealth gives patients who need more structured 1:1 time the ability to have the full focus of their therapist during the appointment.
✓ Ongoing Patient Education
An additional advantage of leveraging a telehealth platform for physical therapy is that you can create automated programs to improve self-management skills. Documents such as therapeutic demonstrations, videos, exercise regimens, or educational resources can be combined into a variety of modules that patients can complete on their own time, that drive goals and expectations already put into place with your action plan. Online programs can be a great option for patients who are struggling with the transition to mainly virtual care, by giving them an additional layer of support in-between appointments.
These additional programs help elevate the care you provide to patients, by expanding interventions beyond the care plan. Extra resources give patients concrete examples of how to incorporate recommendations into their daily lives. They are an additional form of support for patients, as they can act as a jumping-off point for introducing new habits into their routine.
✓ Improved Patient Retention
For patients to make positive progress towards their goals, it’s crucial that they have consistent appointments with their provider. Telehealth has been shown to have a significantly lower rate of cancellation than in-person appointments, at 3.82% vs. 5.44% for in-person. With telehealth, it is more likely that patients will show up to their appointments, making it easier for you to build a rapport, work through any struggles since the last appointment, and make a plan for moving forward. Patients will feel more connected to and supported by their provider with consistent appointments, and providing physical therapy through telehealth is the perfect strategy for doing so.
Healthie Telehealth for Physical Therapy
If you are interested in treating patients remotely, Healthie offers a cloud-based EHR and telehealth platform that is quick to implement while supporting compliance with HIPAA regulations — while being customizable to meet your business needs.
In addition, the Healthie platform integrates with insurance billing tools, so that you can quickly create Superbills and CMS 1500 claims, send invoices, and collect payments for out-of-pocket services.
Here’s what you gain when working with your physical therapy or occupational therapy clients via Healthie:
- HIPAA & PCI compliant
- 1:1 & Group telehealth
- Client messenger
- Remote patient monitoring
- Client portal
We have seen physical therapists and occupational therapists that use Healthie find success with reimbursement for virtual services.
We are optimistic that virtual care and offering telehealth is here to stay. The core foundation of having telehealth reimbursement and coverage for wellness services mainstream in our country is strengthening by the week, and we look forward to watching this transformation unfold.
Whether you’re a solo practitioner or part of a multi-provider group or organization, our flexible membership plans adapt to meet your business needs. Let us help you build your virtual services. Start your free trial today.
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