At first glance, remote physical therapy seems an unworkable idea. As anyone who has undergone physical therapy knows, a typical session involves a lot of contact between the therapist and their patient. The therapist guides you through exercises, helps you to maintain the correct form, and may use their body to provide resistance. They can’t do that over the internet.
However, remote physical therapy—one component of the telehealth revolution—has grown in popularity in recent years. While it’s true some therapies depend on physical contact, many do not. In fact, the most common therapies rely on repetitive motion and stretching; the therapist guides you, but they don’t have to be in the same room.
Remote physical therapy is particularly popular with patients who face challenges attending in-person sessions, including:
- People who live in remote areas without a nearby physical therapy clinic.
- Patients recovering from surgery at home.
- People with physical limitations, including older people with arthritis, joint complaints, and mobility challenges.
Of course, in 2021, there is also COVID–19. You can’t catch coronavirus over the internet, so remote sessions are safer for you and your therapist.
What is Remote Physical Therapy?
A remote physical therapy session usually involves a patient at home and a therapist in their office. Via a remote internet connection, the therapist observes the patient through a webcam, advising on the type of exercises they should do and ensuring they are carried out correctly.
In its simplest form, remote physical therapy can be carried out using standard video chat like Zoom, although it may require a better quality camera than most laptops are equipped with.
Some physical therapists opt for more advanced systems. VERA (the Virtual Exercise Rehabilitation Program) uses 3D tracking technology to monitor poses and movement. Instead of a human therapist, VERA provides a virtual avatar that coaches patients and provides audible feedback based on information from the 3D scanner.
The system is not entirely automated; patients may meet flesh-and-blood therapists for assessment, although in some cases, the initial consultation is also remote. A professional physical therapist prescribes the therapy regime followed by the software. VERA gives the therapist feedback about the patient’s performance and adherence to their exercise program, and the therapist can modify the program to meet individual needs.
Does Remote Physical Therapy Work?
There is substantial evidence that remote physical therapy is as effective as in-person sessions, not least because people are more likely to comply with prescribed therapy if they can do it in the comfort and convenience of their home.
A 2020 study on remote physical therapy for post-operative knee surgery patients published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery found no difference in remote and traditional PT’s effectiveness at 6 and 12 weeks, even though remote therapy was less expensive than in-person sessions. The remote group was also rehospitalized less often.
Remote physical therapy isn’t a good solution when touch is an essential aspect of the treatment process. But in many cases, a physical therapist’s role is to analyze the patient’s condition, design an effective treatment program, and work with the patient to implement that program while monitoring its progress.
What is a Remote Physical Therapy Session Like?
We’ve seen that remote PT can work, but you will need a suitable space and some equipment. At a minimum, you will need:
- An internet connection that supports two-way video chat at a fairly high resolution.
- A good webcam, and perhaps several, depending on your injury and the type of monitoring the therapist needs to do.
- Enough space to exercise. You may be able to exercise from a chair, but you may be asked to stretch, walk around, or lie down.
- Ideally, the space should be brightly lit so your therapist can see you clearly.
The specifics of remote sessions depend on your injury and therapist, but a typical outline looks like this:
- The therapist devises an exercise program and sends it to you before the session, often including short videos of each exercise.
- When the session begins, you establish a video chat with the therapist, who conducts a brief assessment and asks how your recovery is progressing.
- After the assessment, the therapist watches as you perform the exercises. They may do the exercises with you to demonstrate the correct form and technique.
- The session may end with another short assessment and discussion.
Remote physical therapy isn’t the right solution for everyone, but it has proven an effective option for many. Most importantly, it makes physical therapy accessible to people who would otherwise miss out because they can’t travel to a clinic or hospital.