When it comes to treating and managing low back pain, the evidence is clear: physical therapy is one of the best options. With a wealth of clinical evidence to support its effectiveness it is one of the most recommended treatments for back pain sufferers.
Unfortunately, finding a physical therapist is not always an easy task. Factors like your location, your insurance, and your budget can make accessing physical therapy services challenging for some people. So what is a person to do?
What Is The Difference Between Physical Therapy And Digital Physical Therapy?
Well, recently companies have been changing how they do business and combining telehealth services with some high end technology to create a new way of providing physical therapy: Digital Physical Therapy.
Because it is quite a new area of healthcare, we thought we would answer a common question that keeps popping up: What is the difference between physical therapy and digital physical therapy?
Here are 5 key differences between these two types of treatments.
When it comes to seeing a physical therapist in-person the costs can be quite high. Many physical therapists try their best to work within the bounds of insurance plans, or even cash-based budgets.
Financial factors to consider include:
- What is your insurance deductible?
- Do you even have insurance?
- What does your insurance cover?
- What is the co-pay for the visit?
- Is the physical therapist in-network with your insurance company?
- Does your physical therapist charge higher rates?
- How many visits will your insurance plan cover?
- Does your insurance cover all of the services offered/recommended by your physical therapist?
- Do you have to pay for transportation to get to physical therapy?
- Do you have to arrange for time off work or pay for child care?
- Do you have to pay for parking?
All of these things can add up and you can end up paying a lot of money out of pocket, especially if you need more extensive services or have a longer recovery time.
According to data from the Kaiser Foundation, as of 2021, around 27.5 million people in the US were uninsured. This number is significantly better than it was before the introduction of the ACA (Affordable Care Act) in 2016, when more than 45 million individuals lacked health insurance.
One of the main things that digital physical therapy tries to address is to make PT services more affordable for people so that more individuals can access this type of evidence-based care.
Digital physical therapy is often more cost effective because:
- Employers may cover the full cost of the treatment.
- Some digital PT companies only charge a more affordable one-off fee for their services.
- Other digital PT companies may charge a monthly amount that is similar in range to a typical office co-pay but you don't have to meet a deductible first.
- The program doesn't go through insurance.
- You might be able to use your health savings account to pay for the treatment.
- You don't have to pay for parking/transportation since the service is virtual.
- You don't need to take time off work since you can do sessions according to your schedule.
- You don't have to pay for child care.
- Some insurance plans cover telehealth services which would include some forms of virtual physical therapy.
In-person physical therapy can be time-consuming, especially if you have to travel to a physical therapist's office. Recent data from BusinessWire reported that people spend an "average of 28.8 minutes waiting before they can see a doctor".
Add this waiting time to the time spent in traffic getting to and from the appointment and it is easy to see why it will take people so much time to see their healthcare provider.
Trying to take two or more hours off to get to a physical therapy appointment where you travel for maybe 20-30 minutes, have to park, spend another 28 minutes waiting to see your provider, then travel back to work or home and the whole process has ended up taking 2 or more hours.
It is generally recommended that patients participate in PT about 3 times per week for 12 weeks. That means that employers need to give people 6 hours a week which is almost a whole working day.
Times that by 12 and you can see why employers are reluctant to give people that much time off for much needed PT sessions, and why people are afraid to ask for that much time off work.
Physical Therapy That Comes To You
Another key benefit of digital PT is that you can participate in the program anywhere that you are able to access the internet. That means you can do your physical therapy from the beach, at the office, at home, or on a business trip.
For many people, travel plans can be a significant set back to the recovery process. Trying to find 12 consecutive weeks to complete a rehabilitation program can be challenging.
Research has shown that when people don't stick to their long-term rehabilitation program it can be "a major problem that affects treatment outcomes".
Being able to schedule physical therapy where and when it suits you significantly improves adherence to the program, and in turn, helps to speed up the recovery process and reduces the chances of something going wrong.
Not needing to find childcare, or someone to watch an elderly parent, not only saves people money, but also decreases the chances of the patient needing to cancel the appointment if the care plan falls through, or if they simply can't afford a sitter.
Clinic hours are typically fairly rigid and don't allow for a lot of flexibility when it comes to scheduling appointments. For people that work in jobs that might require odd hours, or night shift work, this can be a major barrier to treatment.
Someone who works in a hospital or in law enforcement may find regular office hours are difficult to work with.
With digital PT, because therapists might be working from home, or they might be using pre-recorded programs, patients can participate in physical therapy programs after work, early in the morning, or in the middle of the day. The choice is yours!
A common complaint about how physical therapy takes place in a clinical setting is that it is not very private. A patient might be in the same room as 4 or more other patients and they may not feel comfortable being in that group setting.
Having your personal medical and health information discussed in front of other people can be a source of concern and embarrassment to people and a lack of privacy can actually put people off sharing important information.
A tremendous benefit of digital PT is that the provider is able to see the patient in the privacy of their own home. A safe and comfortable environment can make a big difference to how much information people feel they can share.
The patient might also feel more inclined to try certain exercises when they don't feel like other people are watching them, or judging them.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, in-person physical therapy may not be accessible to everyone. Health equity is an important issue that needs to be addressed.
The USA does not have a national health plan where everyone can receive equal care. As such, many people are either uninsured, underinsured, or may have specialized healthcare plans with restricted access to physical therapy services.
Digital physical therapy has the opportunity to make physical therapy accessible to people who fall into these categories. Programs like Omada Health and OneStep Health offer monthly plans that people can pay for without going through an insurance company or an employer-based healthcare plan.
The virtual nature of these programs also helps companies to keep costs lower and to pass those savings on to the patient.
There are many factors to consider when choosing between in-person physical therapy and digital/ virtual physical therapy. Ultimately, the best type of physical therapy for you will depend on your individual needs and preferences.
If you are looking for a convenient, affordable, and flexible option, then digital physical therapy may be a good choice for you. If you feel more comfortable seeing your provider in real life, and not via a screen or text, then in-person physical therapy may be a better option. Some have suggested that a hybrid approach that incorporates both options might be the best.
What is truly exciting is that the more options we can give to those who are looking for physical therapy services, the more people can get the care that they need.