Technology is firmly a part of any modern rehab therapy practice, but dig a little deeper, and you can see that there are still barriers to greater adoption. Many clinicians hesitate to lean too heavily on technology for fear of being phased out in favor of machines. And while it’s true that the most effective form of rehab therapy is based on the personal connection between providers and patients, technology can give us a leg up in reaching more patients, producing better outcomes, and reducing administrative harm. For that to happen, however, PTs must keep an open mind on new technology in their practices.
PTs have mixed feelings about telehealth and AI.
One finding that stuck out in this year’s edition of the State of Rehab Therapy report is that rehab therapists remain hesitant in implementing and sticking with technological change in their practices. While roughly 30% of rehab therapists stated that they currently offer telehealth, 32% of those respondents either plan to drop telehealth from their offerings in the near future or are uncertain about keeping it moving forward. Furthermore, 41% of respondents don’t offer telehealth and have no intention of doing so in the future, and 20% of providers who used telehealth in 2021 dropped it in 2022.
As an emerging technology, AI hasn’t experienced the widespread adoption —and subsequent decline—we’ve seen with telehealth. In fact, AI has garnered solid approval among rehab therapists: just over 52% of respondents indicated that they were either comfortable or very comfortable with AI, and an additional 33% were at least neutral on the topic. Yet, despite that positivity, only 7% of those surveyed stated that they would be investing in AI or machine learning in the next two years. Similarly, when we asked survey-takers to rank the technology trends they were most excited about, AI and machine learning ranked seventh out of the nine choices offered. These outcomes are not too surprising, as this technology is relatively new and it may be difficult to see exactly how implementation can directly benefit patient care or the overall patient experience.
However, therapists’ feelings about telehealth and AI demonstrate the exaggerated difference between healthcare and other industries in our unwillingness to adopt new technology. While we might like the idea of the new and innovative, we tend to dig our heels in and have a much flatter adoption curve. If we want to meet the demands of patients, we must start thinking of technology adoption as an evolution of PT practice. In this evolution, clinicians work smarter and are able to treat more patients due to efficiency gains—all while still exercising the clinical judgment only they can provide. Our differentiator as a profession has always been the time that we get to spend with the patient; technology can be the catalyst to bring that back to the forefront. With that in mind, let’s examine how telehealth and AI can work as a “PT co-pilot” to help move the profession forward.
How can expanded telehealth benefit PT?
The benefits of telehealth are well-documented; it increases access to care, saves time and money for providers and patients alike, and greatly improves the treatment of chronic diseases.
And providers can’t afford to ignore telehealth at a time when patients are looking for more convenience in treatment. As eVisit co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Miles Romney put it in this interview, “‘Telehealth’ won’t exist in 2050. It won’t exist in 2025. It will just be ‘health.’ It won’t be ‘virtual care,’ it will just be “care.” Here are a few ways telehealth can improve what PTs do daily.
It can collect better data with wearable technology and apps.
The next step in the evolution of telehealth is integrating wearable technology and apps that collect more data on patients’ conditions. We’re already seeing some of this with remote therapeutic monitoring (RTM), which could be viewed as adjacent to telehealth (although not the same as telehealth, despite the misconception from some PTs.) And getting these apps into patients’ hands—and the data into clinicians’ hands—is easier than ever in the age of smartphones. For example, OneStep offers smartphone-based motion analysis that therapists can use to analyze patients’ functional movement and offer more immediate feedback.
It helps facilitate better coordination and communication between providers.
One of the most persistent challenges in healthcare revolves around the coordination of care among a patient’s various healthcare providers. This is partly due to the lack of connectivity between health record systems and the lack of infrastructure to build coordination models. Fortunately, it’s a problem that telehealth is particularly well-suited to address. By enabling easier and more efficient communication, telehealth facilitates timely interactions between primary medical providers, whether to discuss a patient’s treatment response or collaborate in real-time to develop a comprehensive plan of care that addresses all underlying conditions. The benefits of such improved coordination extend beyond enhancing patient outcomes; healthcare organizations can also experience cost savings as a result.
It can be leveraged to address burnout and staffing shortages.
Telehealth can also help mitigate some of the challenges created by burnout and staffing shortages in PT, as well as in the broader healthcare field. Telehealth isn’t just more convenient for patients; it also offers clinicians a break from the perceived daily grind of in-person patient care, whether as a part of their schedule in the clinic or as a work-from-home option.
Health professional shortage areas (HPSAs) are another major barrier to care for many Americans; telehealth allows PTs and other specialists to see patients directly via virtual visits or to connect with primary care physicians to assist in evaluating and diagnosing patients.
What’s AI’s role in the future of PT?
While AI cannot replicate the hands-on work and valuable insights that PTs bring to the table, it can play a valuable role in alleviating some of the more time-intensive or tedious aspects of the job. As Julie Wiebe, Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan – Flint, emphasized in our 2023 State of Rehab Therapy report:
“If we redefine ourselves based on our reasoning abilities, interpretation of our objective measures, our affective skills, and building a therapeutic alliance, then we can appreciate that AI is another tool, not a replacement. I‘ll happily have tech replace my goniometer, but my interpretation of those measures is the value I bring.”
This underscores the symbiotic relationship between PTs and AI, where technology serves to support therapist workflows, allowing PTs to enhance their expertise further and deliver optimal care. With that in mind, let’s ease into some potential AI use cases in PT.
It can streamline documentation and data entry.
I’m not breaking news when I say PTs are drowning in a sea of paperwork. That’s why one of the most promising aspects of AI is its potential to alleviate some of the documentation responsibilities for healthcare providers across the board. We’re already seeing AI-powered note-taking make some inroads in medicine, which can summarize and organize conversations automatically (unlike the current transcription options available). In this profile on AI in healthcare from the New York Times, one doctor details how Abridge’s generative AI freed up two hours in her day and subsequently improved her interactions with patients by eliminating the need for manual note-taking during appointments.
Of course, it’s essential to remember we are still in the early stages of this technology. In order to use AI more fully in healthcare, addressing concerns raised about the accuracy of generative AI programs and consideration of broader issues surrounding patient safety and regulations will be imperative. But in the near term, leveraging AI as a focused and intelligent documentation tool that providers can verify seems like a logical starting point for helping reduce administrative burden.
It’s well-suited to automate and optimize scheduling.
In addition to the benefits AI offers to documentation, data analysis and predictive analytics is where AI has the potential to drive the most efficiency in our practice. Managing schedules for patients and staff can be time-consuming for many healthcare practices, contributing to provider burnout. To that end, AI integration in patient scheduling presents several opportunities, depending on its application. By analyzing your patient list, AI algorithms can identify those who are most likely to arrive late for their next appointment—or miss it altogether. It can then suggest changes or double-bookings to prevent gaps in your providers’ schedules.
With AI assisting in provider scheduling, it becomes easier to consider the busiest times of day, days of the week, or even months of the year to ensure adequate staff availability for all incoming patients. Conversely, AI can identify suitable times for providers to take time off without creating staffing shortages. A study conducted by the American Society of Anesthesiologists found that AI scheduling software introduced in 2018 resulted in increased vacation days, improved flexibility, and enhanced predictability for providers, resulting in better engagement and less burnout.
However, similar to the concerns surrounding documentation, some of AI’s limitations must be addressed before it’s widely implemented in scheduling. For instance, this study found that scheduling algorithms perpetuated racial disparities in healthcare by making Black patients wait longer for care than non-Black patients—which is part of a larger conversation about the risk of AI reinforcing racial bias in healthcare. Remember, AI can only work from known data sources and the risk of perpetuating bad behaviors must be considered and monitored.
It can handle the heavy lifting of coding and billing.
Another big pain point AI could help solve is medical coding. Not only is coding time-consuming, but coding errors can also result in delays in getting paid—something few practices can afford these days.
Fortunately, AI is a well-suited tool for medical coding. As this LinkedIn article from MediCodio explains, AI can analyze a patient’s EMR—including diagnoses and treatments—to identify relevant information and cross-reference it with a coding database to generate appropriate codes to choose from. It’s important to note that AI won’t take coding entirely out of the hands of humans; they still play a pivotal role in reviewing the codes generated by AI and exercising their judgment to ensure they’re the correct ones. However, AI significantly expedites the process of finding the right code, requiring less effort from providers.
Implementing AI effectively in coding does come with its challenges. Training an AI to code accurately requires a substantial volume of records to review—and those records need to be as precise as possible to ensure the AI’s suggestions are correct. And since no practice or organization has a flawless coding record, there will be instances where AI inadvertently replicates past errors made. This potential problem reinforces why having a human review of the AI-generated codes is a must for it to work properly.
Technology can make our work as PTs that much easier, but in order for that to happen, we have to be willing to keep pace with the prevailing trends in healthcare and embrace it in our practices. To that end, I’ll continue banging the drum for hybrid care models that embrace telehealth as an additional tool for treating patients. And I believe AI will help alleviate the overwhelming administrative burden that’s damaging our profession and will drive efficiency and better outcomes in clinical practice. It will also elevate our ability to maximize patient interaction—all while keeping PTs and professionals fully in charge.
Whatever solutions you do choose, however, the most important thing is to be open-minded to changes that will enhance clinical care and convenience for both patients and providers.