Virtual Musculoskeletal Care: Key Benefits for Patients, Providers, and Health Plans

August 12, 2020

Physical therapy or the regular physical activity that successful treatment of MSK disorders makes possible helps reduce the risk of many chronic conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, dementia, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Every day, it’s becoming more clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is not going away soon. Limiting potential exposure is critical for flattening the curve and preventing greater surges in infections. That can spell trouble for patients with musculoskeletal (MSK) health challenges.

Considering that roughly 50% of the U.S. population is estimated to live with an MSK disorder, which can not only cause pain and limit function but also account for 264 million lost work days per year—resulting in some $980 billion in treatment costs and lost wages, effective MSK treatments are incredibly important.

In the era of social distancing, however, the risks of in-person visits to recovery and physical therapy (PT) locations, not to mention physician offices, are a cause for concern, especially in patients with chronic conditions. Patients, providers, and health plans need an alternative means of delivering appropriate recovery care to prevent and manage these conditions. Fortunately, advances in virtual physical therapy are helping patients and providers address that need—here are the major benefits virtual physical therapy can deliver:

Removing the barriers to convenient, accessible care

Patients need quick, easy access to care when it’s convenient for them. This was true before the pandemic, but traditional scheduling and bureaucracy often stood as a barrier to that kind of access. In light of the current situation, patients—especially older patients and those living with chronic conditions—should avoid in-person visits whenever that can.

In good news, virtual physical therapy is easily delivered. Traditionally, physical therpay visits covered by insurance were limited, and could have ended before patients had made a full recovery. Thanks to virtual models, care sessions and duration can be extended until the patient actually recovers and can return to a more active lifestyle.

Solving more than MSK issues

The positive health impact of a virtual physical therapy solution extends well beyond improving symptoms from MSK disorders. The regular physical activity that successful treatment of MSK disorders makes possible helps reduce the risk of many chronic conditions including type 2 diabetes (which affects 34.2 million Americans), heart disease and hypertension (which affects nearly half of American adults, a quarter of whom do not have the condition under control), dementia, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

What should a virtual physical therapy program include to effectively address MSK disorders and the management of other chronic health problems? Researchers outlined the essential components of a successful virtual physical therapy solution, including:

  1. A patient-centered, individualized approach that tailors care to the patient’s needs and preferences.
  2. Careful screening and triage to identify patients whose condition may be more serious and require additional assessment such as imaging and other diagnostic testing.
  3. Tracking and assessment of patient progress based on validated outcome measures.
  4. Patient education to help patients better manage their conditions.
  5. A focus on evidence-based non-surgical care as a first step in the treatment continuum.
  6. Inclusion of an exercise plan tailored to address the specific MSK condition.
  7. A plan to help patients regain the function and comfort level needed to continue or return to work or other activities.

Beyond providing employees and plan members with access to a virtual physical therapy solution that checks all these boxes, employers and plan administrators should consider the program’s ease of access. Virtual solutions provide more convenient access, with sessions available when they’re most convenient for the patient without the hassle and time of travel to a physical therapy facility. Offering this type of virtual physical therapy has the potential to improve employees’ and plan members’ overall health and, because they value this benefit, strengthen their loyalty to their employer or plan.

Mark Luck Olson is CEO of RecoveryOne, formerly known as Trainer Rx. A 30-year healthcare veteran, Olson is known as a health tech strategist who can accelerate performance and top line growth. His areas of expertise include government healthcare markets, market development, consumer engagement, and health management and delivery models.