• Julie Gipe

Teletherapy Amid COVID-19 and Beyond – What You Should Know

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Telehealth has become a popular topic of discussion during the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this year, as officials were pleading with people to stay home and practice social distancing to flatten the curve, many were experiencing telehealth for the first time.

Teletherapy, a type of telehealth, is the online delivery of speech, occupational, physical, and mental health therapy sessions via live video conferencing. Licensed therapists utilize traditional therapy techniques through innovative software and tools. It’s no surprise that the use of telehealth is on the rise with estimates that it will become a 20-billion-dollar industry by 2025. This type of service is ideal when schools and clinics are shut down for multiple weeks, as they are at this time to manage the spread of coronavirus.

Why Organizations Should Choose Teletherapy

1. This method of treatment allows therapists to partner with schools, hospitals, and clients in underserved - and oftentimes remote - areas. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The need for occupational therapists is expected to increase as the large baby-boomer generation ages and people remain active later in life.” This statement rings true for speech language and physical therapy as well. For patients who live in rural areas, providing therapists to serve these clients can be a challenge. By utilizing teletherapy, access to care becomes a reality.

2. Teletherapy allows optimal flexibility for therapists and their patients. With this model, therapists can work from virtually anywhere.

Need to take care of a family member or stay home with a sick kid? Feeling a bit under the weather - though well enough to work - but do not want to go into the office and risk getting others sick? This technology allows you to do all of that.

It also increases efficiency as appointments can be closer together, there is no drive time for therapists or clients, and it increases productivity – the buzz word that all therapists and facilities struggle to manage.

As a patient, lack of time is often something that may prevent them from getting the therapy they need. With virtual sessions, this is eliminated as commute and wait times are eradicated and clients are typically always within reach of their devices.

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3. Safety issues, such as weather concerns and illness, are eliminated with teletherapy. Every therapist knows the stress of not being able to get into work due to storms or snow; then having to manage caseloads when patients are unable to get to their appointments or arrive late. This causes increased strain to attempt to reschedule those patients and to accommodate accordingly when patients check in late.

Additionally, when patients are experiencing flu and viruses (as we are experiencing now with COVID) and come in for therapy, this exposure puts the therapist and subsequent patients that the therapist sees at risk. Teletherapy removes these threats, ensuring safe environments for both the client and therapist.

4. Teletherapy is typically cheaper than traditional therapy methods. Other than the cost of the computer and platform, teletherapy saves money. Traveling and overhead expenses like rent for a facility, utilities, furniture, etc. are eliminated. Since everything is done virtually, there is no equipment expense. Saving in those areas allows the therapist to spend their dollars elsewhere, for example on tools and platforms to further engage their patients in rehab. The Dynawheel is a great option for teletherapy clinicians to use, as it motivates and engages the patient in a fun environment.

For patients, depending on their insurance and/or in-network benefits, teletherapy can be a more affordable option as well. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have approved e-visits for established patients starting March 6, 2020 by expanding the 1135 waiver on a temporary and emergency basis. Make sure to note that with Medicare coinsurance and deductibles apply, though many insurance companies have waived those fees. Additionally, states have also been given broad flexibility to cover telehealth through Medicaid. Many insurance providers, like Blue Cross Blue Shield, have waived member costs for telehealth. Countless therapy facilities have moved their sessions to a virtual platform during this pandemic.

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Challenges with Teletherapy

Like any other therapy setting, it’s important to note that teletherapy does not come without its own disadvantages. While teletherapy’s benefits seem to outweigh its challenges - making it a viable option for every company - it’s important to recognize the pros as well as the cons.

1. Technology problems are one of the most notable challenges in teletherapy. Inconsistent internet connections or glitches with the video chat platform can be two of the most common tech issues and often may be out of the client's or therapist's control. Additionally, low resolution, dropped calls, and frozen screens can make for a stressful experience for both parties. In a time where we are surrounded by technology, we have to remember that not everyone may have a device in order to access services, and if they do have one, many will need education on how to access the therapy platform prior to sessions.

2. Licensing continues to be an issue for providers. At the time of this article, therapists are limited to treating patients in the state in which they are licensed. Meaning that if you are licensed in the state of Michigan, you can only see patients who live there.

Currently, physical therapy has a multi-state license compact, allowing practitioners to pay one fee to be licensed and able to practice in multiple states. Occupational and speech-language therapists do not yet have this option available to them.

3. Privacy concerns are always an issue, but teletherapy adds a layer of complexity to confidentiality. Conducting therapy online makes privacy hacks and leaks more of a concern. Only authorized users should have access to electronic Protected Health Information (ePHI).

It’s expected that providers use reasonable and appropriate safeguards to protect ePHI. It’s not recommended to use platforms like FaceTime or Skype to conduct teletherapy sessions. There is plenty of telemedicine software out there which is HIPAA compliant, including TheraNest, WebPT, and thera-LINK.

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As teletherapy continues to be an emerging area of practice, more research will be needed to determine its effects and compare it to in-person sessions. While there are some challenges, the benefits are abundant, and it should be an option that every facility at least considers.

As we continue to do our best to provide therapy services during the COVID pandemic, many providers will experience teletherapy for the first time in their career.

How are you providing services to your patients during this time? Leave us a comment below!

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