Physical and occupational therapy are rarely mentioned during discussions of telehealth. More often than not, it’s because therapists have to work directly with their patients in one-on-one, face-to-face settings to achieve the best results possible. And yet, there are cases that justify using telehealth solutions. A new study looking at the role of OT and PT in stroke recovery demonstrates as much.
The study, conducted by researchers from the University of California Irvine, looked at 124 stroke survivors spanning 11 U.S. states. Each of the patients underwent an intensive therapy program for six weeks. Half received one-on-one care at a therapist’s office while the other half participated in a home rehab program supervised by a therapist via a telehealth videoconferencing system.
What the Study Showed
Each of the subjects in the study were 4.5 months beyond initial onset and still suffered from loss of motor function in the arms. The average age of the patients was 61 years old. At the conclusion of the study:
- the traditionally treated patients showed an 8.4-point improvement on the Fugl-Meyer scale
- the telehealth patients showed improvement of 7.9 points.
According to researchers, the difference between the two groups is statistically insignificant. For all intents and purposes, both groups of patients performed equally well despite one receiving therapy via telehealth. This demonstrates that OTs and PTs, at least in some cases, can effectively treat patients without having to see them in the office. This is huge in terms of increasing access to care.
How It Helps Patients
Telehealth is often touted as a key way for our healthcare system to alleviate the ongoing shortage of professionals. Where therapy jobs are concerned, our system can do a lot more with less through a telehealth model. Therapists can see more patients in a day without all the burdens that come with maintaining an office. That means more access to more patients who, for one reason or another, may not be able to make it to a therapist’s office.
Patients benefit in another way too: they are able to go through rehab in the comfort of their own homes. That could make a major difference for some patients. Being able to stay home and receive telehealth therapy can alleviate some of the fear and anxiety normally associated with going to a therapist’s office.
How It Helps Therapists
Telehealth helps therapists by giving them more opportunities to help more patients. For example, a locum tenens therapist could be brought in to manage a telehealth system during peak times in order to keep the practice or hospital on track. A locum could take extra shifts as well, enhancing in-office work with extra telehealth work on off days.
Private practice owners and employed therapists would experience the same kinds of benefits. They would be able to expand the scope of what they do beyond the confines of the office setting, helping patients who could be on the other side of the county or clear across the country.
If telehealth takes off in OT and PT, it could be one of the best things to happen to the industry since the emergence of locums at the turn of the 21st century. Of course, telehealth will not be an appropriate solution for every patient. The majority of cases will still require in-person interactions between patients and therapists – at least for the time being.
Telehealth is here to stay in American medicine. Let’s hope it takes off in occupational and physical therapy. Telehealth represents a win-win for patients, therapists, and healthcare facilities alike.