Digital health. Virtual care. Telehealth. Many names but all point to the same thing: New ways for healthcare providers to connect with their patients.
Many thought that once the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic was over, telehealth would slink back into the shadows and be mostly forgotten about.
But virtual care, and specifically virtual physical therapy (physical therapy that is delivered through technology) for conditions like back pain, is only growing more popular and threatening to take the healthcare world by storm.
How The Pandemic Gave Virtual Healthcare A Much-Needed Push
Virtual physical therapy is certainly not a new phenomenon. In the past, virtual care was generally reserved for those in more rural areas when people didn’t have the option to see a provider in person.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic came along and it turned our world upside down and left providers scrambling to see how they could reach their patients primarily through virtual means. Once telehealth became the “norm” it was easy to see how many people preferred the convenience that this type of care offered. S
So how can digital PT benefit back pain? LivaFortis looks at 6 specific ways that DPT can help reduce low back pain.
The Growing Need For Remote Access To Healthcare
In the US alone, a large number of people do not live in urban areas. Some 14% of people live in rural communities where there are significant shortages in healthcare providers. Research has found that more than 80% of rural communities are considered medical deserts.
This means that more than one third of people in the US live in counties where there is insufficient access to pharmacies, primary care providers, hospitals, trauma centers, healthcare specialists and/or low-cost health centers. In fact, more than two thirds of the primary care health professional shortage areas in the US are in rural communities.
To make matters worse, more than 50% of adults in the US live with at least one chronic health condition, like chronic back pain, and many of these individuals reside within those rural medical desert areas. Because of this, many people find themselves having to travel incredibly long distances to cities and towns where healthcare providers are located.
The Challenges Of Healthcare Deserts
Having to travel so far for medical attention comes with significant challenges for people such as:
Finding child care/ adult care
Taking time off work
The 6 Key Benefits Of Virtual Physical Therapy For Low Back Pain
1. Increased Access To Care
Virtual physical therapy allows patients in rural areas to access the best providers regardless of their geographical location.
By connecting digitally with providers, many of the healthcare barriers listed above become obsolete. People no longer have to arrange for child care or time off work as they can participate in their treatment from the convenience of their own home or town.
Instead of being limited to healthcare providers located within their geographical area, clients can find someone who fits their individual preferences and works with their specific type of condition.
Similar to increased access to care, virtual physical therapy is a lot more convenient than traditional in-person visits. When it comes to making a telehealth appointment it seems as if there are more appointments available and that this provides for more flexibility for patients.
Doctors also don't have to worry about patients running late due to traffic or parking problems. They don’t have to worry about overflowing waiting rooms or new patients not being able to find their offices.
Likewise, patients don’t have to worry about driving to the doctor’s office, or making their way into the clinic when they are having problems walking. Virtual visits are easier to fit into people’s busy schedules and people can even see the doctor from their workplace or home.
More than 70% of millennials, Gen Xers, and Gen Zs say that they actually prefer telehealth because it is so convenient. Some have even said that they would consider switching providers if telehealth visits are not going to continue to be an option.
3. Personalized Treatment
A traditional physical therapy appointment is generally conducted in the physical therapist’s office or clinic. The patient is evaluated and may be given some exercises to do at home between sessions.
A virtual physical therapy appointment can give PTs an extra advantage by way of seeing the patient’s home environment and allow them to observe the client in their natural habitat.
They might notice that the client’s desk is set up in such a way that their work posture might be causing some of their problems, or be able to see that the main bedroom is upstairs for a client that isn’t supposed to be climbing stairs right now.
These things might give the therapist the idea to suggest a different work set up or make a temporary sleeping arrangement until the individual is able to climb stairs.
Virtual care is a great way to extend the healthcare experience around the person as a whole. The client is able to choose from a wider range of providers and can find someone that they connect with on a more personal level.
When providers and patients can connect in more personal ways, trust is nurtured, underlying causes of problems can be more easily identified, and patients are able to take greater ownership over their health goals. Treatment feels more like a partnership and better outcomes can be achieved.
4. Reduced Costs
We have already seen how digital physical therapy can help reduce costs for clients by way of reduced transportation costs, child care costs, and less time off work. Research has found that telehealth visits are actually cheaper than traditional office visits.
A 2017 study found that telehealth visits cost patients an average of $79 compared to $146 for an office visit. Patients are more likely to show up for a telehealth visit which means that providers aren’t left with as many no-shows and canceled appointments. In 2018, CMS estimated that telehealth services saved Medicare patients $60 million just on travel, with those numbers projected to reach $170 million by 2029.
May factors play into these cost savings such as:
Preparing or waiting for an in-office visit
Time taken off work
When all of these aspects are considered, higher projections start putting the savings in the $500 million range, and that is just for Medicare patients.
Preventing More Costly Care
Another way that virtual physical therapy can help reduce costs for healthcare companies and individuals is in preventing more costly care. When people don’t have the ability to get to in-office healthcare visits, there can be a tendency for those individuals to avoid or skip important services altogether.
When clients are able to attend regular physical therapy visits, data shows that those visits reduce the use of more costly urgent and emergency department visits, as well as over used and often ineffective imaging services.
When you can speak with your physical therapist you can be reassured that although your back pain feels excruciatingly painful, sticking to your physical therapy rehabilitation program will get you through it without another MRI or additional pain medications.
Ascension Health conducted research that found that from March to May of 2022, “nearly 70% of patients would have gone to either urgent care or the ED had they not had access to virtual care”. Telehealth is a great tool to ensure that patients get the most appropriate type of care that they really need, when they need it.
5. Improve Health Equity
We wanted to save the last spot for what we think is one of the most important benefits of virtual physical therapy. The global pandemic really turned a spotlight on the issue of healthcare inequity which is a major concern in many countries, but particularly in the United States where there is no universal healthcare plan.
Rural communities, racial minorities, the underprivileged and the elderly are all particularly vulnerable to healthcare inequities. Digital technologies like virtual PT have enormous potential to help reduce these inequalities.
Increased access to care, more affordable solutions, improved access to highly qualified specialists, translation services, improved diagnostics and greater flexibility with regards to appointments, all of these benefits can make a huge difference to those who bear the brunt of healthcare inequalities.
6. Realtime Feedback
Digital health solutions allow clients to receive the most up to date, clinically validated care from the convenience of their homes. For those who cannot leave work during the day, after hours appointments are imperative.
For those who cannot arrange for childcare, being able to consult with their doctor from their own home saves them money and helps ensure that they are able to keep their appointments.
Improved medication/treatment plan adherence means that there are fewer clinical problems and complications. Hospital admissions and ER visits are decreased and patient satisfaction scores soar.
What we have to remember is that as quickly as this technology advances, the focus must always be on the consumer. If innovation produces a product or technology that is too complicated or too expensive then we will have missed the point of what we are trying to do. Patient care.
Virtual physical therapy options should reduce exclusion and improve equity - not deepen the digital divide. Companies must ensure that all patients have access to these life changing technologies and that quality digital healthcare is truly accessible to all.
Digital physical therapy can offer several benefits for those with low back pain, including:
Increased Access To Care
Increased Health Equity
Overall, digital physical therapy provides a convenient and effective alternative for managing low back pain.