The Future of Physical Therapy

Physical therapist Chuck Martin shares observations he’s made during his forty years in the field and offers a glimpse into where the industry is headed next.

Chuck Martin has spent almost half a century on the front lines of the physical therapy industry. Every new patient reinforces for him the importance of taking good care of your body — a concept he says you can trace back far into history.

“An argument could be made that physical therapy goes back 5,000 years,” he says. “Properties have been used by individuals to heal themselves and to help heal others for a long time.”

In this episode of Powering Health and Wellness with RPM Rehab, Martin shares his predictions for the likely equally long future of physical therapy: how COVID-19 has impacted treatment, the achievement of direct access and why physical therapy should be used on a more consistent basis.

Becoming the Practitioner of Choice

The future of physical therapy lies in the growing need for consistent, regular functional assessments. Martin says physical therapists should expect to see people at a much higher frequency.

“If you think about when you go to see a cardiologist, a cardiologist doesn’t usually just treat you for a little while and then let you go,” says Martin. “It’s usually we’ll look at your advancement, see where you are, then we’ll see you in another six months or a year.” 

Physical therapy is beginning to advance to this same kind of pattern. By seeing patients biannually, even after care for a specific problem or injury has finished, physical therapy professionals are able to effectively monitor changes in functionality and mobility within patients.

“That’s going to be the future,” Martin believes. “We’ll see them every six months or once a year to sort of look at how they’re moving, how they’re tweaking, trying to keep that train on the track as opposed to having the train jump off the track.”

With more consistent check-ins, Martin says patients will be able to remain active for a much longer time, and even avoid needing walkers as they advance in age.

“I’m a firm believer that if we keep people moving, and people keep their fitness and their stretching up, that there’s no reason why they can’t remain healthy and active up into their nineties.”

Growing Autonomy

An important recent development for physical therapists has been the transition to patients having direct access to care. In the past, it was necessary for patients to get a referral from a physician in order to begin sessions with a physical therapist. 

“As the desire for more autonomous practice grew, there began to be a push for physical therapists to have direct access,” Martin explains, “which means the patient could make the selection to come directly to a physical therapist.” 

Martin says before direct access, patients often had to wait extensive periods before they were able to get seen by a doctor. This was an ineffective way for treating both injuries and mobility issues.

“Often what happens when you have an injury, it may take three to six weeks to get in to see the physician and another two to three weeks to see the physical therapist,” he says. “So now you’re two, two and a half months out from the time you were injured before receiving the care you need.”

Today, to some degree or another, all 50 states have changed their laws to include direct access to physicians, allowing for earlier treatment for patients.

“By being able to come directly to a physical therapist, treatments can start earlier and interventions can be developed earlier.”

Telehealth Transformation

The past year and a half has pushed physical therapists to adapt to a virtual world. It also opened up opportunities for telehealth care to take an even bigger role in physical rehabilitation. And Martin hopes that growth continues beyond the pandemic.

According to Martin, now it’s as easy as setting up a video conference with your practitioner of choice to address the daily wear and tear we feel on our bodies.

Another advantage of telehealth services is the ability to provide some level of care from almost anywhere in the nation, thanks to the “Physical Therapy Compact.” The PT Compact is an interstate agreement between participating states intended to provide collaborative access to physical therapy services, regardless of where the patient lives.

“If I have a license in Washington state and I pay a fee and pass a small test, I can then be considered to be licensed in all these other states, which allows me then to do telehealth across state lines,” Martin explains.

For physical therapists, this means expanding their reach to new patients in desperate need of help. And for the consumer, Martin argues, a much wider access to life-altering therapy for all.

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