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Travel therapy and telehealth: A match made in medicine

Digital communication is rapidly becoming the standard, and medicine is no exception. With internet access available just about anywhere and handheld devices in every pocket, we can get answers quickly. It's no surprise, then, that telehealth is steadily growing, attracting patients and providers who see it as an exciting new frontier. In fact, according to the American Hospital Association, 74 percent of U.S. residents would be willing to try telehealth services. Just what is this developing area of medicine and how can it affect travel therapy providers? Let's find out.

What is telehealth?

Telehealth is the process of providing healthcare services and related communication electronically. The AHA notes that telehealth refers to a wide spectrum of services, including clinical and non-clinical. As such, education, training and patient communication all fall under the umbrella. What's more, specific industries within healthcare view telehealth with different lenses. The American Physical Therapy Association includes these elements within its definition of telehealth:

  • Healthcare services related to physical therapy.
  • Physical therapy intervention.
  • Education and training.
  • Advice about health and lifestyle.
  • Patient reminders.
  • General communications regarding treatment and care.

The APTA also includes long- and short-distance care and communication in its definition. Telehealth, then, is a natural fit for travel physical therapy, as it allows providers to continue caring for and speaking with their patients, no matter where they are.

Doctor in her office using a computer.Telehealth allows care providers to communicate easily with their patients.

Telehealth benefits

Having access to care online provides a few obvious benefits for both patients and providers.

Patient benefits

  • Access to treatment even when providers' offices aren't nearby.
  • Lower cost, especially when it comes to transportation.
  • Fast responses from providers.
  • The ability to receive care in the comfort of one's home.

Provider benefits

  • More patients.
  • Easy communication with other care providers.
  • Fast screenings, referrals and treatments.
  • Flexibility in scheduling and treatment locations.

Factors that contribute to growth

The AHA predicted that telehealth would have 3.2 billion patients by 2018, which is an increase from the estimated 250,000 patients using the service in 2013. Factors that make this boom possible include improvements in technology, consumer attitudes toward that technology and laws regarding medicine. For instance, the AHA noted that passage and implementation of the Affordable Care Act incentivized providers to try new approaches to care, including telehealth. What's more, the National Conference of State Legislatures revealed that in 2015, 42 states introduced a cumulative 200 bills that pertained to telehealth. 

As for technology, the prevalence of handheld devices, internet access, video conferencing capabilities and cybersecurity all lay the groundwork for effective distance care. Physical therapists, who are busier than ever, can easily visit their clinic's or hospital's online portal between in-person visits to communicate with their patients. It gives care providers flexibility and access to their patients.

One final, but driving, force in telehealth growth is the cost of service. While more Americans than ever are insured under the ACA, not everyone has access to a primary care physician. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 79.7 percent of adults visited the emergency room for non-life-threatening health concerns because they didn't have access to any other physician. Furthermore, according BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina, the average ER visit costs $1,233. Telehealth provides an affordable and accessible alternative that allows everyone to get the care they need, no matter what resources are available. 

Medical records and stethoscope on desk.Treatment can be expensive, especially when your only option is the emergency room.

Telehealth in physical therapy

While telehealth certainly open doors for travel therapy, it does comes with stipulations. Before implementing it into your practice, understand the limitations and regulations surrounding telehealth. 

Traveling to provide care or treating distance patients allows you to help a broad range of people. However, the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy cautions that you must be licensed to practice in the state where the patient is located. For this reason, you should list where your licenses are on your website to attract those you are legally able to treat.

The FSBPT also noted that therapists are responsible for determining the best way to implement telehealth in practice. In some cases, that might mean providing treatment from a distance. In others, you might need to treat the patient in person but use the ability to communicate about scheduling, payment and other administration details online. At the end of the day, you should provide the best care possible, no matter what that looks like, using the resources available to you. 

Informed consent
Just as you'd have patients sign a consent agreement in person, you must also have them do so for distance care. The FSBPT recommends getting a photocopy of the agreement. What's more, you should let clients know about any limitations telehealth might present in their physical therapy treatment and acknowledge that information stored digitally can be lost.

Becoming familiar with telehealth trends and applications for travel physical therapy will allow you to grow your practice and find care methods that work for you. Refer to professional organizations to which you belong to find telehealth guidelines. 

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