Editorial, Physical Therapy PT

What Is Virtual Physical Therapy? How It Works + Benefits

A patient is waving to his doctor over a webcam on his laptop.

The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled many physical therapists to pivot to virtual healthcare. As a result, virtual physical therapy, also known as “telehealth physical therapy,” is rapidly growing, allowing many patients to experience online PT appointments for the first time. In this post, we define virtual physical therapy, explain how it works, and discuss some of its advantages over in-person visits.

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What Is Telehealth Physical Therapy?

The term “virtual healthcare” refers to clinicians providing services to patients via communications technology. For example, a doctor can videoconference a patient who is at home to extend patient care.

Instead of traveling to a clinic for an in-person visit, patients communicate with a licensed physical therapist via phone call or videoconference and attend the appointment from home.

Telehealth is used across different physical therapy specialties, and may be a fit for patients who will benefit from appointments in which physical touch from the PT is not required. For example, virtual sessions can be used to help educate patients. Telehealth physical therapy can also compliment in-person sessions.

Is Virtual Physical Therapy Effective?

Research has shown that, for certain treatments, virtual physical therapy is equally effective as in-person therapy.

  • A study published in The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery showed that telerehabilitation was similarly effective as traditional care for patients recovering from total knee arthroplasty. ((Janet Prvu Bettger et al., Effects of virtual exercise rehabilitation in-home therapy compared with traditional care after total knee arthroplasty,” The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, Jan. 15, 2020: https://journals.lww.com/jbjsjournal/fulltext/2020/01150/effects_of_virtual_exercise_rehabilitation_in_home.2.aspx))
  • The Musculoskeletal Journal of Hospital for Special Surgery discovered that, during COVID-19, patient satisfaction with virtual physical therapy was comparable to patient satisfaction with in-person services. ((Erica Fritz Eannucci et al., “Patient Satisfaction for Telehealth Physical Therapy Services Was Comparable to That of In-Person Services During the COVID-19 Pandemic,”  HSS Journal, Oct. 2020: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7571303/))
  • The American Physical Therapy Association advocates for telehealth as an effective and viable method for delivering patient care. ((American Physical Therapy Association, “Telehealth Advocacy”:   https://www.apta.org/advocacy/issues/telehealth))

Benefits of Virtual Physical Therapy

While different from traditional services, telehealth physical therapy has its upsides. In this section, we expand on several key benefits.

Illustration of the three main advantages of virtual physical therapy: accessibility, patient independence, and time-saving.

1. Accessible to More Patients

A huge benefit of virtual physical therapy is that it is accessible to more people. For those who live in rural areas far from the nearest PT clinic—or who don’t have ready access to transportation—attending online sessions may be considerably more feasible than traveling to in-person appointments.

Virtual physical therapy is also more accessible and comfortable for rehabilitation patients. While recovering from surgery or injury, a patient may be unable to drive to an appointment. Telehealth therapy allows them to make progress on their recovery without needing to leave home.

2. Helps Patients Independently Manage Symptoms

Allowing patients to self-manage their symptoms in their own homes can grant them a greater sense of independence, making them feel more in control of their recovery process. It may also be helpful to conduct physical therapy telehealth sessions in the same area of the home where patients will be practicing exercises on their own. That way, the licensed physical therapist can provide guidance on using rehabilitative equipment and features of the home (such as walls, doorways, and furniture) within certain exercises.

3. Saves Time

Virtual physical therapy sessions may be easier for patients to fit into their busy lives, since they don’t have to drive to the PT clinic. For parents and those with demanding work schedules, an at-home appointment can offer a welcome level of convenience.

What to Expect from a Virtual Physical Therapy Session

A woman on her laptop looks at an image of a physical therapist massaging a patient’s lower back.

As a patient looking for physical therapy professionals online, you will need a computer, phone, or tablet for your virtual appointment. Your physical therapist may contact you ahead of time asking you to download the appropriate videoconferencing platform. Before the session, make sure you have a reliable Internet connection and a space in your home with room for you to move. Position your device’s camera so that your PT can see all your movements.

During the session, your physical therapist may verbally guide your exercises, perform the exercises with you, observe your movements, look for any difficulty of movement, and engage in discussion. In some cases, they may ask you to use furniture, walls, or basic household items to perform exercises or aid in balance.

What Makes a Successful Session?

It’s the job of a physical therapist to help patients regain their range of motion, manage pain, and improve their quality of life. Even when the session is virtual, your PT should deliver excellent care. During a successful session, your PT should express compassion, communicate clearly, and encourage questions. They will work with you to make a plan, set realistic goals, and help you work toward them.

If you’re interested in virtual physical therapy online, contact your PT to create an individualized plan and discuss whether you are a good candidate for virtual sessions.

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Additional Resources

Below are additional resources for both patients and physical therapists regarding telehealth PT advocacy and regulations.

  • State Licensing Board Information: FSBPT provides contact information for each state’s licensing board. Contact your state licensure board to learn your state’s regulations regarding practicing virtual physical therapy.
  • Ways to Advocate for Expansion of Telehealth Services: The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) has created letter templates that PTs and patients can use to lobby Congress, state governments, and insurance payors to waive restrictions on the use of telehealth services.
  • Telehealth Resource Centers: The National Consortium of Telehealth Resource Centers offers helpful resources to organizations and individuals who are actively providing or who are interested in providing virtual healthcare.
  • Telehealth.HHS.gov: This website provides updates on the latest federal efforts to support telehealth services.

To become a physical therapist, you must first earn your Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. At the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences, our physical therapy programs include didactic courses, hands-on lab practice with mock patients, and supervised clinical rotations. Students learn manual treatment modes that can help patients regain movement, lessen pain, and live to their fullest potential. During the pandemic, USAHS is conducting some virtual clinical training to maintain safe learning environments and help future PTs prepare to facilitate virtual physical therapy.

The largest PT school in the United States,* the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) offers a hands-on Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. Join a collaborative cohort of peers who learn under the mentorship of expert faculty-practitioners. Practice with mock and real patients in our state-of-the-art simulation centers and learn anatomy with our high-tech tools. Prepare for clinical practice with a wide range of patients, as well as for advanced roles in research, practice leadership, and policymaking. Residential (online coursework + in-person labs on weekdays) and Flex (online coursework + in-person labs on weekends) formats are available.

*Based on total DPT degrees conferred, as reported by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Data is captured by IPEDS through interrelated surveys conducted annually by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/

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