Musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions are a leading cause of disability and pain worldwide. In the United States, MSK conditions account for an estimated $800 billion in annual healthcare costs.
Unfortunately, getting care for MSK conditions can be a fragmented and inefficient process. Often patients end up seeing multiple providers for different aspects of their care - and getting an appointment can be tricky, or sometimes even downright impossible!
Technological Advances In MSK Care
Fortunately new technological advances for MSK care are being made with digital health being a key player in transforming the way musculoskeletal (MSK) care is delivered.
Digital health technologies, like mobile apps, wearable devices, and telehealth, are increasingly being used to help patients with their recovery. These tools can do things like provide education and support to patients, track patient progress, and deliver care remotely.
This article looks at some of the key benefits and challenges of digital health for MSK care including:
Improved patient outcomes
Reduced costs for patients
Improved patient satisfaction
What Is Digital Health?
So what exactly is digital health? Digital health is a broad term that basically covers all of the different ways that companies and healthcare providers can use technology to improve the way that they deliver healthcare services.
Digital health includes things like:
1. Text messages
2. Telehealth consultations
3. Virtual care visits
4. Remote patient monitoring
7. Health apps
How Is Digital Health Changing MSK Care?
Digital health is transforming the way MSK care is being delivered to users in a number of ways. We are going to take a look at some of the main ways that digital health technologies are being used to help patients in their physical therapy journey. Read on to learn more!
1. Provide education and support to patients.
Digital health technologies can be used to provide patients with information about their condition, as well as exercises and other self-management strategies. This can help patients to better understand their condition and take control of their own care.
Education is unanimously recommended by international guidelines and can help people understand their condition and how to manage it more effectively.
Research has shown that when people understand more about their health conditions, they can manage their care better and take more ownership in the recovery process. Education generally leads to increased adherence to exercise programs and treatment suggestions, and better compliance to healthcare professional's treatment plans.
When patients stick to the plan they have fewer complications and get better faster! Apps are one of the key ways that companies are providing users with vital information about how to manage their condition.
2. Track patient progress
Digital health technologies can be used to track patient progress over time. This information can be used to identify patients who are at risk of developing complications, or who may need additional support.
When you are seeing small changes every day it can be hard to see the dramatic difference over an extended period of time. Many apps help patients to track their progress and see how much their functionality has improved, or how much their pain has decreased.
Tools like the Oswestry Disability Index tracker are often used as the gold standard to help patients see the small changes that eventually add up to major progress over time, and they can also give patients a common language to share with doctors to adequately describe their pain levels.
Being able to see progress can give patients a major motivational boost and can significantly increase adherence to treatment programs.
3. Deliver care remotely
Digital health technologies can be used to deliver care remotely, such as through video conferencing or telehealth. This can make it easier for patients to access care, particularly those who live in rural areas or who have difficulty traveling.
New apps allow patients to text with physical therapists or health coaches to get updates on their condition, answer questions about their health, or simply to have someone help motivate them with their training.
What Are The Benefits Of Digital Health For MSK Care:
1. Improved patient outcomes
Studies have shown that digital health interventions can improve patient outcomes, such as pain relief, function, and quality of life.
For example, a study published in the journal JMIR found that a mobile app that provided patients with education and support for chronic pain was associated with a significant reduction in pain and an improvement in quality of life.
2. Reduced costs
Digital health can help to reduce healthcare costs by reducing the need for in-person visits and by improving patient adherence to treatment.
Recently a study published in the journal Health Affairs found that a telehealth program for patients with chronic pain was associated with a 20% reduction in healthcare costs for consumers as they avoid things like transportation costs.
Those are some major savings for consumers!
3. Improved patient satisfaction
Patients who use digital health technologies are often more satisfied with their care than those who do not.
For example, a study published in the JMIR found that patients who used a mobile app to manage their chronic pain reported high engagement rates and improvements in self-reported anxiety and pain catastrophizing.
Digital health technologies often allow for greater customization and personalization of treatment programs, even with the care being delivered remotely. With the increased access to consumer data, telehealth companies can tailor-make programs that drive real value to consumers.
The Challenges Of Digital Health For MSK Care
When it comes to using digital health to deliver care to patients with MSK conditions, there are some challenges that companies and providers need to keep in mind.
Digital health challenges include:
Access to technology (or lack of it)
Not all patients have access to the technology needed to use digital health interventions. Some patients may not have a smartphone or tablet, or they may not have access to the internet. This is important for companies to keep in mind as they develop new tools and apps.
There have been some concerns about the privacy of patient data collected through digital health technologies. For example, patients may be concerned about who will have access to their data, and how it will be used.
Companies need to be transparent with patients about how and why they are using their data. They also need to give patients the right to access their data when and where they want to, and to be able to see it themselves in meaningful ways.
Just as patients need to learn how to use these new technologies, healthcare providers also need to be trained on how to use digital health technologies effectively.
More time needs to be spent in medical schools and in practices helping doctors understand some of these new technologies to they can get the maximum benefits for themselves and for their patients. One example of this is that healthcare providers need to be trained on how to interpret the data collected through digital health technologies, and how to use this data to improve patient care.
How Do Patients And Healthcare Providers Feel About Using Digital Health For MSK Care?
What do people really think about digital health?
When it comes to seeing how people really feel about using digital health the answers are mixed. One study, published in 2022 in Musculoskeletal Care found that physical therapists and patients "infrequently use digital health technologies to support musculoskeletal care, but expressed some willingness to consider using them for select functions".
The study found that physical therapists were most willing to use technologies for:
receiving diagnostic imaging results
scheduling appointments and
capturing diagnostic results
Patients were most willing to use technologies for:
receiving notifications about health test results
looking up health information and
receiving personalized alerts/reminders
The fact that the study was conducted in Australia and that the participants were mostly females, over the age of 50, could make a difference to how we think about these results.
It could mean that they don't want to use technology as much as younger patients, or patients in other countries, but it could also mean that they found it easier to access the technology than older individuals, or people living in countries with limited access to the internet.
Digital Health - Clinically Proven?
In September, 2022, a meta analysis was published in the Journal Of Medical Internet Research. This review looked at 965 publications and 56 randomized control studies, with almost 10,000 people studied.
The review found that there was moderate evidence to support digital health solutions for pain management, and the improvement of disability and functional outcomes. Digital health solutions scored high when it came to improving quality of life for people with MSK conditions.
Despite some challenges, digital health has the potential to transform the way MSK care is delivered. By addressing the challenges of digital health, we can make it easier for patients to access high-quality care, regardless of their location or income.
If you are interested in learning more about digital health and its impact on MSK care, there are a number of resources available online. You can also talk to your healthcare provider about how digital health technologies can be used to improve your care or subscribe to our blog for updates on how technology is being used for physical therapy care.