The coronavirus pandemic has been the catalyst for a new wave of regulatory change that has broadened the rehabilitation therapist’s toolbox almost overnight. More recently, CMS has made telehealth more widely accessible to rehabilitation therapy providers. (Hallelujah!) While the industry has been fighting for this privilege for years, rapid change has thrown many providers into uncharted waters of remote care with very little time to prepare. And now after these providers implemented entirely new technological systems in record time so they can take advantage of telehealth – states are beginning to ease their orders for home stay and shelter on site. As more and more patients return to clinical treatment, many rehabilitation therapists are wondering how telehealth services will fit into their practice models over the next few months and years.
We know that telehealth will never replace practical rehabilitation care. However, when used in combination with in-person visits, telehealth can be an asset to providers during this transition phase – and well beyond. Here’s how:
It ensures the safety of patients and staff.
Yes, the COVID-19 restrictions have started to loosen. But that does not mean that the threat has completely disappeared. And this has left many clinics at a standstill, unable to immediately expand operations to full capacity due to security concerns. For the moment, the The CDC has published specific guidelines reduce the spread of infection in health care facilities as these facilities begin to reopen. These measures include maintaining six feet of space between individuals and installing physical barriers or partitions in waiting rooms – two things that are impossible to implement if clinics increase the volume of patients at pre-COVID levels.
Telehealth can help reduce the number of patients and providers at the same time.
Naturally, therapy providers are anxious to bring their clinical operations back to normal – or as close to normal as possible – but with the threat of COVID-19 still imminent, this is probably an issue. In the meantime, the practices must do a little operational re-swizzling– not only to provide peace of mind for staff and patients if they choose to resume care in person, but also to ensure that providers can meet patients where they are.
It could mean:
- Quirky schedules for patients,
- Extension of clinic opening hours,
- Double sanitation standards,
- Check patient temperature at the door, and
- Offer virtual tours as much as possible, either exclusively or in combination with in-person tours.
High risk patients can continue to receive care from the security of their own home.
Virtual care is a safe way for therapists to continue to serve patients who may have to stay at home because they have symptoms of COVID-19 or because they are part of a high-risk population. As uncomfortable as it may be for providers, one of their top priorities should be to limit the spread of infectious diseases – and having remote care options on standby will help ensure continuity of care while ensuring the safety of other patients and staff members.
It responds to changing patient demands.
Even after the crisis is behind us, virtual care is something that the rehabilitation industry as a whole should strive to integrate into the equation of care. After all, now that patients understand that this is a viable alternative to face-to-face visits, demand will continue to grow. While many states are “reopening”, that doesn’t mean that everyone is ready to go back to life as we know it – and this is especially true for the high-risk populations mentioned above.
Today’s patients seek convenience whether or not they are required to stay at home.
In addition, the flexibility that telehealth offers patients, whether they stay at home or not, is attractive in various situations, which the Summit Physical Therapy can attest. “Our patients were very excited to see that we could adapt quickly and operate offsite at the start of this pandemic and [and that we could] continue to provide care through a telehealth option, ”said Jay Cherok, PT, DPT, Cert. MSKUS, co-founder of Summit Physical Therapy. “Summit PT is currently using a hybrid model of clinical and telehealth visits to our patients [as] suitable for minimizing direct interaction and keeping the curve flat. As we go through this pandemic and in the future, we hope to continue to offer telehealth in addition to clinic visits in order to provide more practical, quality care to our patients. “
Telehealth can help rehabilitation therapists gain access to patients who might otherwise never receive treatment.
In addition to being important in the current situation, telehealth also offers rehabilitation therapists the possibility of reaching patients that they could not otherwise treat. And since 90% of patients who may benefit from physiotherapy do not receive it, telehealth could be the key to helping PTs, occupational therapists and speech-language pathologists meet more patients where they are.
It supports income diversification and helps maintain the viability of clinics.
When the epidemic hit our country, the health care industry was widely surprised – and rehabilitation practices suffered more than many other practitioners, as rehabilitation therapists did not have many viable options for continue to see patients and bill for services. The phrase “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” never seemed more relevant.
Thanks to recent, albeit long overdue, relaxation of telehealth restrictions, practices have had the opportunity to diversify their services, which has opened up additional sources of income which otherwise would have remained untapped. And although telehealth has his limits, this helped the clinics stay afloat when they could have closed permanently.
Revenues from telehealth visits can help offset lower than normal clinic appointment revenues.
In addition to reducing administrative costs, the optional telehealth offer can help compensate for the loss of income which is inevitably accompanied by the limitation of patient volumes. After all, although many clinics will have to limit their number of concurrent clinic appointments, there is no limit to the number of concurrent telehealth appointments they can schedule (apart from the limitations presented by their telehealth platform and Internet bandwidth). In addition, as noted above, offering a variety of services through in-person and virtual channels is very appealing to today’s patient-consumer – and it can make rehabilitation therapy a more attractive path for patients who would otherwise balk at office visits (whether or not there is an active pandemic). According to the advisory board “Consumer Choice Survey of Virtual Tours“—Which was done long before one of us even heard of COVID-19— 77% of patients want access to virtual care. As we have all seen, the current global situation only makes it worse.
Being prepared to respond to this request can help providers to patient experience, and therefore increase their patient retention rates, one of the keys to a clinic’s long-term viability. After all, high churn rates are not only taxed financially, but can also seriously hamper referrals from patients and other providers.
Virtual care options like telehealth have the power to support business continuity strategies, now and in the future, if implemented properly, that is. If the new regulations are needed permanently – and it appears to be the case – rehabilitation therapists have an excellent opportunity to optimize and diversify their care options to not only provide a better experience for patients, but also better prepare for the unexpected.
“I think telehealth will most certainly remain a powerful tool in rehabilitation therapy and the health care industry as a whole,” said Cherok. “Now that the general public has tasted the efficiency, convenience and value of telehealth, I don’t think they will back down. Telehealth offers physiotherapists an effective way to provide prompt interventions to patients who might otherwise wait for help with their ailments. “
Do you have questions about the benefits of telehealth? Just leave a comment below, and we’ll do our best to get back to you.