Support rehab health with hybrid care

The pandemic ushered in the dawn of the hyper-connected consumer in nearly every industry, including healthcare.

Data from before the pandemic shows that most patient care is delivered in person, with telehealth accounting for less than 10% of all visits. This is largely due to three reasons: 1) payment systems and processes do not support virtual care; 2) both patients and providers do not feel the need to change; and 3) there was a misconception that virtual care was inferior to in-person care.

The pandemic has clearly swung the pendulum in the other direction. After the spring of 2020, about 90% of patient care was performed virtually out of necessity. Stalled digital transformation initiatives suddenly reached a dead end as vendors were forced to build virtual platforms in months, not years. Insurance regulations have been relaxed, facilitating reimbursement equal to in-person visits. Relaxed security requirements have also allowed vendors to move faster.

And then came a surprise. While many trudged through remote school and work hoping for a quick end, it turns out that the majority of patients actually enjoy virtual care because of its affordability and convenience. For many providers, it was still a challenge to change practice models and figure out how to do things virtually.

And then, when the pandemic became something to live with, patient sentiments changed again. Patients have become reluctant to pay the same costs for a virtual exam as an in-person one. There was also concern about things being missed or overlooked in practice when they would have been noticed with a personal visit.

The highlights of hybrid care in a short time

Similar to the working world, the end result was that more patients began to demand hybrid options. It’s easy to see why. A virtual visit reduces the stress of leaving work or arranging childcare. Perhaps surprisingly, telehealth often allows doctors to connect better with their patients than in person, thanks to the constant eye contact that can be maintained on a screen. It’s also more personal. This literally allows healthcare professionals to meet their patients where they are.

There’s even evidence that incorporating telemedicine can produce results equal to in-person care. One study comparing telemedicine and in-person clinics found comparable outcomes for diabetes, hypertension, and kidney disease. Telemedicine patients also report being very satisfied with their care. A study from Cigna’s telehealth division MDLive also found that patients who engaged in telehealth had 19% fewer visits to the emergency room or urgent care.

Yet only 47% of physical therapy clinics offer telehealth services, based on recent WebPT survey results. Clinics that have not yet begun to offer hybrid options face not only patient satisfaction, but negative consequences among the therapist base due to converging macro forces such as a tight labor market, massive burnout among physical therapists, and most the worst inflation in 40 years.

It is expected that the industry will need over 15,000 new physical therapists each year, and despite thousands joining the field, the industry is still unable to meet the demand. Many of the newer graduates—the same Gen Z and millennial consumers who are driving the rapid acceleration toward digital technology in all aspects of life and work—are hungry for a virtual environment to practice care because of improved access to care, the convenience of the telecommuting model and the clinical evidence supporting the effectiveness of virtual physical therapy. A therapist can see more patients virtually than in person, achieving a one-to-many model. Virtual also allows you to increase access to care; consider the patient who may struggle to afford a bus ticket or face a long travel time to get to a clinic in person.

Then there is the revenue generation factor. In January, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released a set of new reimbursement codes that allow providers to bill payers using remote therapeutic monitoring, or RTM, codes for digital musculoskeletal services linked to technology that measures patient adherence to therapy and response to therapy. As more digital services become reimbursable, RTM codes provide incentives for therapists to care at home, opening up new revenue streams.

Putting everything into practice

No rewinding the clock. Even if born out of the crisis, telehealth is now critical to the survival of the physical therapy industry. Because patients, as well as consumers, simply want more choice. They may go to a clinic in person one month and request virtual care the next. Physical therapists must give their patients this flexibility. If you try to go back to the old patterns, you will fail. Instead, you need to find a stable partner that can help you build a new future-oriented model.

Today, technology exists that allows patients to simply use a smartphone to perform their physical therapy exercises and receive recommendations from their provider based on objective and subjective data. Smartphone sensor technology helps therapists monitor how patients are doing with real-world exercise and share meaningful information that helps them stick to their treatment plan. Intuitive platforms allow providers to easily generate reports on each patient’s progress.

So much of our healthcare market is reactive, but with the right technology and partnerships, we can drive the entire clinical model upstream so that we move to prevention rather than crisis mode.

Photo: Liubomyr Vorona, Getty Images

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