Telehealth Physical Therapy Crosses Personal Training with a Virtual Doctor

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telehealth physical therapy

The long process of getting back to the life you once knew after an accident can be as painful as the accident itself.

I know, because I recently broke a finger, and the process to get back my full range of motion and ability in that finger has been incredibly slow and frustrating. It’s taken hours of tedious exercises at home, like squeezing putty and grasping a foam tube–to even get to the point where I can partially bend and straighten the finger. And, of course, it’s taken driving to see a physical therapist twice a week, who demonstrates new exercises, shows me how to steadily increase my workload, and monitors me to make sure I’m doing the exercises in a way that will most efficiently help my hand.

When I first started therapy, my therapist Karen wanted me to come in as much as possible (something about it being crucial to start intensive therapy before too much time had passed after surgery), but between her patient load and my schedule, the most we could reasonably fit into a week was two visits.

In the digital age, though, a therapist can be with you every day via telehealth physical therapy. Video conferencing removes the need for travel, promotes instant contact, and lets you explain every frustration face-to-face as soon as it occurs. The physical nature of this kind of therapy does, however, require a little fusion of the medical and fitness fields.

The Growth of Telehealth and Telefitness

Healthcare and the personal fitness industry have been two of the fields quickest to adopt online services, including video calling-based ones. They’re also two of the industries most successful at using these methods.

There are dozens of mobile healthcare apps currently available, like virtual doctor apps, the best of which include video calling to aid diagnosis and add a personal touch. On the clinical side, research has shown that treatments for maladies as varied as addiction, OCD, asthma, diabetes, and even cancer can be delivered over a video conference link as effectively as they can in-person, bringing comprehensive virtual healthcare closer to reality. That’s led to some major upheavals in care delivery, including a statewide transformation of telemedicine in Texas.

The fitness industry works on a more preventative approach to our physical well being, but it has been just as innovative in serving people online. In addition to personal trainers making themselves available to shout slogans at you over a mobile video call, there are immersive technologies from brands like Peloton and Yogaia that recreate the in-person, in-group experience of aerobics, bike riding and yoga. All of these services are designed to get you motivated, keep you working, and virtually invade your very real personal space in order to help you reach your goal.

Which is exactly what’s needed from a remote occupational therapist.

The Possibility of Telehealth Physical Therapy

Occupational therapists sit neatly at the point where telehealth and telefitness overlap, and the American Occupational Therapy Association has a long history of supporting what it calls telerehabilitation.This online service includes client evaluation, treatment, monitoring, and education.

There are some limits to what a telehealth therapist can do. Some exercises and movements require a therapist to manipulate the body, especially when establishing and then pushing the boundaries of what a patient thinks their body can do. And you can’t do things like heat treatment or ultrasound therapy over the internet. Then there’s also the fact that therapists aren’t allowed to practice outside the state that issued their license.

But I think there’s still plenty of room left to make the online connection worthwhile. Just like a virtual personal trainer, the remote therapist can have you go through bends and stretches to gauge your capabilities, then discuss your goals, and finally motivate and monitor you through each session, no matter how many it takes. Trust me, it’s a lot harder to slack off on your exercises on a day when you’ve seen your physical therapist.

So, How Would This Work?

What do you need for these telehealth physical therapy sessions? All the movement that goes on in a therapy session means the online version is best delivered through a desktop with a nice webcam. A mobile may seem more flexible as you go about your day, but even the biggest can’t match the 90-degree views of a standalone camera.

That still means you could catch up with your therapist for, maybe, 15-20 minute sessions on each day you couldn’t drive to the clinic, at least at the beginning, the most crucial part of the therapy. Several times a week is a lot, but it’s much easier when there’s no travel involved for either party, especially for the patient who, like me, might not want to drive 25 minutes in rush hour traffic each way.

So while you might not be able to get out into the sunshine of your local park like a virtual personal trainer would have you, you still get the same levels of coaching and motivation.

And with an occupational therapist the goals are more practical. They’re guiding you back to physical freedom, not just physical health. They want to make sure you can get back to work, get back to your social life, and get back to feeling like you can trust your body, like you’re not broken. As I can attest, the sooner that happens, the better.

Image Source: Flickr CC User Roger Mommaerts

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