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How Patients with Chronic Illnesses can Benefit from Telehealth Physical Therapy

Telehealth has been a pivotal offering for physical therapists during the COVID-19 pandemic. At Clinicient, we’ve partnered with BetterPT to provide outpatient rehab therapists with a HIPAA compliant telehealth option as they adjusted to local lockdowns.

But the benefits of offering telehealth will be felt long after the pandemic has ended. Through remote visits and check-ins, therapists of all sorts can provide a more accessible form of care for their patients. Providing a telehealth option is especially beneficial for patients with chronic illnesses. An estimated 6 in 10 American adults have a chronic illness, according to the CDC. The most common chronic illnesses include cancer, heart and lung diseases, diabetes, stroke, dementia, arthritis, and other conditions that require long-term care and management.

Many patients with chronic illnesses face additional hurdles to care, such as more frequent doctor visits, higher healthcare costs, and accessibility limitations. Luckily, telehealth can help. Let’s explore how physical therapists can use telehealth technology to improve the outcomes and quality of care for patients with chronic illnesses.

1. Telehealth makes care more accessible

During the pandemic, a major benefit of telehealth has been the ability to continue care remotely to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Telehealth has proven to be an essential alternative to traditional doctor visits for patients with chronic heart and lung conditions who are at a “higher-risk” for COVID-19 complications. Until a vaccine becomes readily available, telehealth may continue to be the safest option for these patients.

But the benefits of more accessible care won’t end after the pandemic. Telehealth offers patients with chronic illnesses comfort, convenience, and access.

  • Comfort: Patients may be more comfortable being in their own homes, where they have access to medications, snacks, and water when they need it.
  • Convenience: Patients won’t have to worry about commuting if they live in rural areas, finding transportation if they don’t have a car, or finding childcare for their kids during the appointment. For the clinic, this can translate to fewer cancellations, late arrivals, or missed appointments.
  • Access: Many patients with chronic illnesses also experience physical disabilities and limitations. Some patients may require oxygen supplementation, mobility aids, or other assistant devices that make traveling to and from a clinic more difficult. Providing telehealth to these patients eliminates the need to navigate in public spaces that may be inaccessible.

2. Therapists can promote self-management through telehealth

Factors such as a person’s socioeconomic status, neighborhood, house, education, and more can impact their treatment goals and outcomes. Which is why telehealth offers the unique advantage of providing a small window into your patient’s home life during the visit.

Through telehealth, therapists can use the tool to adapt the patient’s treatment plan to their home environment. Plus, multiple researched studies collected by the Community Preventive Services Task Force found patients with chronic illnesses showed significant improvement in treatment and medication adherence when using telehealth.

With that in mind, both therapists and patients can benefit from performing home safety evaluations, at-home exercises or stretches, and making real-time physical assessments.

  • Home safety evaluations: By using your patient’s webcam and with their consent, you can ask your patient to visit different areas of their home so you can make safety, ergonomic, or play evaluations. You can make recommendations on how they sit in various chairs in the house or recommend areas for them to clear space for stretching. With a complete picture of your patient’s home life, you can better understand how their environment may shape their recovery.
  • At-home exercises or stretches: When going over stretches or exercises for your patients, you can also recommend items in their space to use as stand-in equipment. Dining chairs, soup cans, or other household items may not compare to the equipment you offer in your clinic, but these are items that are readily available in the home. And after the appointment is over, the patient can continue to use those items to maintain their at-home practice.
  • Real-time assessments: Unlike in the office, when a patient is on a telehealth call, they can act out certain home activities that cause them discomfort or pain. For example, if a mom is having a hard time lifting her baby from the crib, you may be able to observe from the webcam how she’s standing, bending, and lifting. You can then provide tips on how to improve her movement and stance, right there on the call.

3. Telehealth can reduce healthcare costs for patients with chronic illnesses

While healthcare debt is a common concern for many Americans, patients with chronic illnesses often face significantly more debt. They may require more hospital or emergency visits, doctor visits, medications, and procedures to manage their condition. A 2016 review of Medicaid patient costs found annual per patient disease-related costs ranged from $989-$51,937, depending on the condition and its severity.

However, telehealth has proven to be a more cost-effective alternative for many patients with chronic illnesses when managing their condition. While your patient may not be seeking physical therapy for chronic illness management, telehealth can still help your patient save money on medical care. Mainly, telehealth’s flexibility and accessibility can aid in treatment plan adherence, resulting in fewer chances of reinjury and saving them money on additional expenses.

  • Improve recovery outcomes: When you help your patient improve their home environment, you may also be helping them reach their treatment goals in time, which can reduce patient costs. They’ll feel more empowered to follow your suggestions when they understand how to perform exercises at home and how to navigate their space safely. In turn, they may be less likely to reinjure themselves or delay their recovery because of missed appointments, saving the patient money.
  • Money saved on related expenses: While a patient’s out-of-pocket costs for a telehealth visit may not be much different from an in-person visit—depending on their insurance—they can still save money in other ways. Telehealth allows patients to save on travel expenses, like gas or transportation, or childcare. And patients won’t have to take additional time away from work to attend the appointment.

Expand your care by offering telehealth today

For physical therapy clinics, telehealth will never replace the hands-on service of in-person appointments. However, therapists shouldn’t ignore the flexibility, accessibility, and convenience telehealth provides. Whether you’re helping your patient adapt their home to accommodate their treatment or helping them stay safe during a global pandemic, telehealth offers a unique and valuable alternative to care for patients with chronic illnesses.

If you’re interested in offering telehealth visits at your clinic, request a BetterPT demo of our HIPAA compliant telehealth solution today.

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