How Technology Has Strengthened Physical Therapy
Today’s technology has transformed a broad variety of industries, but few sectors stand to gain as much as healthcare. It can be a matter of life or death in many cases, and modern innovations make all the difference. Though technology may be useful for urgent care, areas like physical therapy can benefit just as much.
Physical therapy (PT) may not be as pressing as other medical fields, but it’s still crucial. As Baby Boomers continue to age, the need for PT increases. PT does more than just serve aging populations, however.
Many Americans deal with chronic pain, and prescription drug use has grown exponentially to address it. These pharmaceuticals are comparatively ineffective and addictive, so medical professionals have turned to PT as an alternative. The need for effective physical therapy has never been higher, and technology is helping to manage demand.
Improved Accuracy of Diagnoses
In any medical field, a treatment is only as effective as the diagnosis is accurate. If physical therapists don’t have a precise picture of the problem, they can’t address it. Modern technology gives them the tools they need to improve the accuracy of their diagnoses, informing better treatment plans.
Imaging technology like X-rays and CAT scans have helped medical professionals analyze patients’ conditions for decades. Institutions such as New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital have started using AI to process these images before a doctor reviews them. These machine learning systems can find areas of concern far faster than a person and point medical professionals in the right direction.
Another tech-driven trend in PT assessments is the use of markerless motion capture, which uses machine vision to analyze a patient’s movement without requiring any special clothing or markers. Using tech developed by companies like EuMotus, they can finish assessments in as little as 15 minutes, highlighting potential issues or improvements in patients’ range of motion.
Tech can’t necessarily speed the body’s healing ability, but it provides support to make this natural process more targeted and effective.
Some of the most common PT technologies today enable therapists to take full advantage of natural resources. For example, water is 800 times denser than air, making it ideal for resistance training. With tech like underwater treadmills and waterproof heart rate monitors, physical therapists can use this widely available resource to its fullest extent.
One of the most promising cutting-edge PT technologies is robotics—specifically, robotic exoskeletons. Exoskeletons from Sarcos, ReWalk, Ekso Bionics, and others physically manipulate patients’ limbs or other body parts to train their muscles to move correctly. This technology is still relatively new, but as it develops, it will get more affordable, leading to further implementation.
In many industries, technology has led to a trend of hyper-personalization. That’s true of physical therapy, as well, where individual patients have unique needs and situations that may require personalized care. The rise of data analytics technology has revolutionized personalization in medical fields like PT.
Medical professionals have started using personalized reference charts based on a “people like me” approach. In this practice, a data analytics engine compares a patient’s specific case and medical information to similar data from past patients. By analyzing trends in similar cases and considering the patient’s unique concerns, it then estimates what the recovery process might look like.
With this information, physical therapists can set patients’ expectations about recovery times and design a personalized treatment plan. As with all data-driven processes, the more people use these systems, the better they become. More use cases will produce more data, making the analytics more accurate.
Technology improves the quality of physical therapy, but it also makes it more accessible. Healthcare accessibility has been a prominent issue in America, as high costs often prohibit people from accessing the care they need. While this is a multifaceted issue that no one factor can improve, technology is providing some relief.
Telehealth is one of the most promising and fastest-growing technological developments in health care accessibility. In April 2020, 43.5% of Medicare visits used telemedicine services, compared to just 0.1% in February. With these services, patients can consult doctors and physical therapists from their smartphones. There’s no need to travel or linger for hours in a crowded waiting room.
Not every consultation requires an in-person visit, and telehealth takes advantage of that. Patients can consult medical professionals over video, eliminating unnecessary in-person visits and the attendant bills from visiting a hospital or other facility.
Physical therapy billing is also transforming. Recently, some PT programs have transitioned to merit-based incentive payment systems (MIPS), which uses data about care quality to determine bills. Data analytics engines analyze multiple factors to produce more nuanced, individualized payment adjustments so patients pay for the quality they receive, not a fixed rate.
Technology advances at an exponential rate, so these changes will compound. In just a few years, physical therapy could be unrecognizable as it embraces additional technologies.