Virtual physical therapy has been taking the medical world by storm with companies like RecoveryOne, SpineZone, Kaia Health, Dario Health, and Hinge Health creating digital musculoskeletal clinics to try and address the growing need for physical therapy services.
For some time now, the demand for physical therapy services has been outpacing the supply. Physical therapists have long wait times, or may even see multiple patients at the same time. Some rural areas may have only one physical therapist who has to serve the entire area, while other areas may not even have one at all.
Digital PT comes in many shapes and forms and while some may be very familiar with this type of treatment, others might just be hearing about it for the first time.
In this article we take a look at some of the different digital physical therapy programs that are on the market and what a virtual physical therapy appointment might look like so that patients can know what to expect and how to compare different programs so that they can get the most out of their virtual PT appointment.
What Is Digital PT?
Digital PT covers quite a broad range of treatments that really refer to any type of physical therapy that is done digitally. It can also be known as virtual physical therapy or telehealth.
It has been suggested by physical therapy professionals that digital PT should be defined as “healthcare services, support, and information provided remotely via digital communication and devices”. This could include services such as video conferencing, home exercise videos, text messages, or even emails.
Digital PT is often divided into 3 types:
1. Synchronous Therapy
This term is used to refer to any type of therapy that happens “in real time”. If the patient and clinician are engaged in a “live” video session, if the patient is receiving real time feedback from sensors or technology, or if they are having a real time phone conversation, all of these interactions are considered to be “synchronous”.
2. Asynchronous Physical Therapy
Asynchronous therapy refers to things that don’t happen in “real time”. Asynchronous therapy often includes services like patient intake forms, paperwork, pain scales, or follow-up care.
Asynchronous therapy can include messages between the patient and the provider such as online forms, pre-recorded information, videos for the patient to watch, or images that the patient can refer to. The patient will complete the form or watch the video and the clinician can review this information at a later stage in order to diagnose or manage the condition.
3. Hybrid physical therapy
Experts have suggested that a hybrid model that combines both telehealth and traditional in-person physical therapy may provide the best possible patient experience and outcomes. Your physical therapist may prescribe exercises to be done at home and between sessions in order to maximize results and speed up the recovery process.
Another option might be that a patient living in a rural area meets with a physical therapist in person and then uses a digital physical therapy clinic to continue treatment at their convenience.
Alternatively, the virtual clinic might be the only way that the patient can start therapy and get moving and then they might want to check in with a live session after a few sessions have been completed to check their progress.
While it stands to reason that certain aspects of physical therapy services are best done in-person, like muscle and soft tissue assessments, or manual treatment techniques, access in-person services simply isn’t an option for everyone. Telehealth is an excellent way to expand access to care for many who would otherwise be unable to receive physical therapy services.
Is Digital PT Effective?
As the number of digital PT options expand, companies are producing an increasing amount of clinical data to support the use of this technology. Clinical study outcomes have been favorable and have shown that “digitally delivered care with a therapist and/or coach was effective in improving… symptoms”.
Some Common Uses For Digital PT:
Follow up visits
Home exercise programs
Functional movement screenings
Progress monitoring appointments
Home safety evaluations
What Does A Typical Digital PT Session Look Like?
While experiences may vary from company to company and physical therapist to physical therapist these are some examples of sessions that people may encounter in their rehabilitation journey.
Kaia Health takes a hybrid approach to virtual physical therapy. Kaia sessions include:
Bidirectional data sharing
A cross functional referral system
A session that combines the use of an app with traditional physical therapy.
The use of wearable sensors to track movements.
This company has a wide variety of digital options available to users, depending on which program their employer selects. Programs can include:
A digital app that guides patients through physical therapy exercises.
Wearable sensors to track range of motion.
A TENS unit for pain management
Virtual visits with a physical therapist
Consultations with an orthopedic surgeon within their network.
Omada Health’s musculo-skeletal program includes:
A digital assessment
A treatment plan customized by a physical therapist
Video visits with the physical therapist, as well as live chats.
3D animations and videos to guide patients through exercises
An exercise kit.
We aren’t sure what has happened to this technology as we can’t find any new information after 2019 but we wanted to include this offering in our list as it won’t be long before someone else tries this type of offering.
VERA is Reflexion’s Virtual Exercise Rehabilitation Assistant. VERA is an in-home interactive device that is based on Microsoft’s Kinect technology. The device guides patients through exercises and records them in 3-D video. The avatar then provides real time instruction and feedback.
VERA was generally owned or leased by hospitals and clinics and was temporarily placed in patients' homes for a low monthly expense.
What Does The Future Hold For Digital PT?
Most of the digital physical therapy clinic programs seem to include an initial assessment followed by a digital program delivered via an app, and combined with some type of motion-tracking device to help physical therapists know if the exercises are being completed correctly.
As the product offerings have evolved, some of the clinics have expanded to include more telehealth consultations with live video sessions with healthcare professionals. Some companies are also exploring the use of virtual reality headsets and devices to provide virtual physical therapy services.
Some of the Benefits of Digital PT:
Better adherence to home exercise programs
Better, faster recovery
Fewer appointment cancellations
More convenient scheduling of appointments
Lower/no transportation costs
lower/no child care costs
Less time taken off work
Access to a bigger network of providers
Overall, patients can expect a digital physical therapy session to be similar to an in-person session in terms of the exercises they are given and the types of treatment plans that are made.
Sessions will, however, be conducted remotely, typically via video conferencing, and the therapist will use a variety of digital tools to remotely monitor and assess the patient's progress and provide feedback. The therapist may also provide the patient with instructional videos or other digital resources to use in between sessions.
The hope of companies providing these services is that more people will be able to get the treatment that they need, in a way that is safe, convenient, and cost effective, and that patients can get back to living life to the fullest as soon as possible.