By Cher Zavala
Over the last decade, virtually every aspect of health care has been affected by technology in some way. From electronic health records to telehealth, from wearable devices to apps that let you make appointments and refill prescriptions with a few taps, technology has made the delivery of health care more efficient and more effective.
One area that is changing drastically due to technology is physical therapy. While it might seem like some of the innovations in PT are something out of a science fiction movie, they are very real — and making a very real difference in patients’ lives, especially when it comes to reduced healing times and more comfortable care. Technology is allowing physical therapists to deliver better care than ever before, and leading to new advancements beyond what anyone imagined.
Technology and Clinical Research
No discussion of technology in physical therapy would be complete without addressing the role of clinical research in advancements. Thanks to new technologies that allow for the collection of trial data electronically, research has become more efficient and more accurate than ever before. More researchers than ever are relying on eCOA clinical trial protocols, which are speeding up the timeframe for new therapies.
One such study that has been receiving a lot of attention was conducted at the Netherlands’ University of Twente. Researchers here equipped a lightweight suit with 41 different sensors to collect data about stroke survivors’ strength, flexibility, ability to walk, and other key metrics and send it wirelessly to university databases. This data can be used to track patients’ recovery progress and develop more effective treatment plans. As the researchers noted, most clinical assessments of stroke patients take place in a doctor’s office, and don’t always tell the whole story about how well a patient is progressing. By having patients wear one of these sensor-equipped suits under their clothing for a few months, therapists can have a more accurate picture of patient progress — and reduce the amount of time treatment is required.
Many people have a negative view of video games, believing that they are too violent or a waste of time. But for those receiving physical, occupational, or neurological rehabilitation services, video games can actually be an important part of the treatment plan. Using game consoles that require players to move to play the game helps patients develop better balance and movement, improve their range of motion, improve coordination, and develop better reflexes and hand-eye coordination. Not to mention, playing games is usually more fun than traditional therapy, and allows family members to join in as well.
The idea of telehealth is gaining traction across the health care continuum, and physical therapy is one area where it’s actually showing a great deal of promise as a viable alternative for patients who wouldn’t otherwise see a therapist in person, thanks to improved broadband services, as well as widely available devices.
According to the CDC, more than 700,000 people receive full knee replacements each year, but about 70% of those patients do not follow through with the complete course of postsurgery physical therapy. This leads to hospital readmissions, chronic pain, and other issues for the patient. To help reduce these problems, many rehabilitation providers are turning to telehealth services, which allow them to work with patients from the comfort of the patients’ own homes. Research indicates that tele-rehabilitation services effectively reduce painkiller prescriptions, readmissions, and the need for additional follow-up care, as well as improve overall quality of life.
Robotics is quickly becoming an integral part of the delivery of physical therapy. In fact, the American Physical Therapy Association referred to the pairing of robotics and PT as “The New Age of Function, Movement, and Recovery.” Robots are now being used to help patients with everything from learning to walk again to guiding them through therapy sessions. One major benefit of using robotics for PT is the ability to more accurately gauge patient progress. While rehabilitation providers have the education and skill to evaluate patient condition and progress, they have to rely on their own subjective measurements. Using technology, these measurements can be standardized to ensure that patients are progressing appropriately and their care plan is on the right track.
As researchers continue to develop new technologies, there is no doubt that the field of physical therapy will continue to expand and improve. We are only at the beginning of a new frontier of more personalized and more effective care.
Cher Zevala is a content coordinator specializing in topics associated with the healthcare industry and innovations in the healthcare field. She is also a contributing writer to Physical Therapy Products. For more information, contact [email protected].