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November 30
09:40 2020

To the Point

By Ellen Morello, PT, DPT


A virtual model lets employers scale up care and employees safely access it

In the midst of a public health crisis, accessing necessary medical care has become even more difficult—and there is data to prove it. The numbers show that people have been putting off getting much-needed care as long as they can.

In the age of COVID-I9, telehealth offers an alternative way of providing critical care.

Putting aside the over 11 million Americans who have contracted COVID-19, people needing everything from hip replacements to routine care are delaying getting treatment. In July, the Washington Post reported that cancer screening tests were still 20% to 30% below pre-coronavirus levels. Modern Healthcare, meanwhile, said that hospitals are seeing “a concerning pattern of patients continuing to defer care or returning after delayed care with more severe issues.”

This pattern of deferred care isn’t limited to acute care  settings. And yet we know the need for care doesn’t stop in a pandemic. Delaying care can negatively impact health outcomes—and increase healthcare costs for patients and payers alike.

Working from home brings fresh challenges

You might think that getting out of the office and working from home would make people feel better. Unfortunately, the sudden shift out of our office environments may be a major contributing factor to new aches and pains. While many employers provide ergonomically sound equipment in the office, our home spaces are not similarly equipped. The couch may be the perfect place to watch TV or read a book, but our laps were not built to be 9-to-5 desks. Likewise, kitchen and dining room chairs were made for short-term seating, not sustained use during the day.

The result has been an increase in back and neck pain as home workstations lack proper ergonomic structure. We’re also seeing more ankle and foot problems such as plantar fasciitis, because people working from home tend to go barefoot for sustained periods.

The high cost of chronic pain

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 50 million Americans, or just over 20% of the U.S. population, live with chronic pain. About 20 million of them have pain that is so severe that it limits their ability to work and their quality of life. The U.S. reportedly spends $130 billion to address musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions, second only to cardiovascular disease. In a 2019 National Business Group on Health survey of large employers, respondents rank MSK as one of the top conditions impacting their healthcare costs.

The CDC recommends physical therapy—and exercise —as the first line of defense against musculoskeletal pain. In the age of COVID-19, telehealth offers an alternative way of providing critical care. In fact, studies have shown that remote physical therapy is just as effective as, and in some cases more effective than, in-person care.

Remote health offers a simple path forward

Remote health, or telehealth, offers a virtual care model that enables employers to scale up care and employees to safely access that care. Furthermore, providing employees with a simple path to physical therapy can prevent unnecessary imaging, injections, addictive opioids, and other costly pain management strategies.

In order to improve access to care during the coronavirus pandemic, telehealth and virtual healthcare are becoming more widely adopted among policymakers and healthcare providers. The CDC issued emergency telehealth regulations that let Medicare patients use telehealth for a wide range of services that previously required face-to-face visits. The CDC’s example has been adopted by many private insurers across the United States, easing access to remote benefits and bringing critical care to millions of employees.

The author

Ellen Morello is Physera’s senior clinical program manager where she manages clinical operations of Physera’s nation-wide Telehealth Physical Therapy network. She has been practicing telehealth as a physical therapist since 2017. She holds a B.S. in physiology and neurobiology from the University of Connecticut and a doctorate in physical therapy from New York Medical College. She has been invited to present on telehealth physical therapy by the American Physical Therapy Association, American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine, American Telemedicine Association, and more.

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