Imagine being a physical therapist at the onset of the coronavirus crisis. One day you are seeing patients in the office, the next day you are not. You are told by your employer that all physical therapist jobs will be going virtual for the foreseeable future. Now you must brush up on your telehealth skills.

You might think that learning your way around a new telehealth system would be the hardest part. You might think learning to master your operating system is big challenge. But it turns out the hardest part of telemedicine for physical therapists is not the technology. It is having to practice physical therapy without actually being physical.

Hands Are Like Gold

A physical therapist interviewed for a piece recently published on the Northeastern University website spoke of her difficulty adapting to telehealth. She explained that her hands were her “bread-and-butter.” Indeed, the physical therapist’s hands are like gold. They use them to show patients how do exercises. They use them to provide muscle massages.

The entire concept of physical therapy is based on having direct contact with the patient in a face-to-face setting. Physical therapists use these face-to-face visits to evaluate patients, create treatment plans, and physically lead their patients through those plans.

Practicing via telehealth only makes physical therapy jobs harder. It is harder for the therapist to evaluate a patient’s progress simply by hearing a description. It is harder to guide patients in learning new exercises by trying to explain them. Therapists are used to being able to observe patient movement and physically demonstrate new exercises.

Physical Therapy Will Adapt

There is little doubt that physical therapists are having a tough time adapting to the telehealth model. But physical therapy will eventually adapt. It will have to. Now that telehealth has been introduced to mainline medicine, the likelihood of it being put back on the shelf is not too great.

A new emphasis on telehealth will require physical therapists to develop new ways to conduct evaluations. They may have to develop multimedia resources that allow for video demonstrations during telehealth sessions. Therapists will certainly have to get better at describing what they used to demonstrate in person.

Likewise, patients will have to adapt as well. Not physically seeing the therapist on a regular schedule means patients will have to take more responsibility for their own recovery. They will have to be more diligent about doing the exercises and reporting in when things are not going so well. And of course, they will have to be more attentive during telehealth visits with their therapists.

Different Is Not Necessarily Bad

The temptation right now is to look at the challenges of telehealth and assume that making the transition to virtual care is bad. That is not necessarily true. Different does not always equal bad. Telemedicine is certainly different, but it has its own advantages and disadvantages. It is how those advantages and disadvantages are addressed that really matters.

Humanity is very resilient during challenging times. In this country, challenges are an opportunity to innovate. Knowing that, physical therapists can look forward to the coming months and years and the new opportunities for innovation they will be offered.

The biggest challenge in telehealth physical therapy is not being so physical. That challenge is exacerbated by the fact that physical therapists are not normally trained in telemedicine. But that is going to change too. Expect to see training programs introduce telemedicine courses in the coming years. Expect physical therapists to be trained in how to do their jobs virtually. Like it or not, telemedicine is here to stay.

Posted by Virginia K. Stockstill

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