Article as originally published in The Hill by Nikesh Patel, PT and the executive director of the Alliance for Physical Therapy Quality & Innovation.
Every day, Americans wake up to a new reality created by the rapidly evolving novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. For the days and months to come, daily life will significantly change as we take steps to socially distance ourselves and reduce the rate of disease transmission.
Such efforts to contain the virus are necessary, urgent, and utterly warranted – they represent a collective societal response to reduce the potential deadly impacts of a rapidly proliferating pandemic whose health and economic ramifications are yet to be fully understood. But this reality also imposes a myriad of secondary and tertiary implications. For one, how can vulnerable patient populations who suffer from chronic and acute pain still receive the care they need while abiding by government guidelines to self-isolate?
As a community-based physical therapist, I remain deeply concerned that countless patients across the country – many of whom are elderly, immunocompromised, and suffer from pre-existing conditions – will be unable to access the safe, effective pain-management treatments they depend on to stay healthy and independent. Were patients to face difficulties accessing outpatient physical therapy, it would make it harder for them to regain balance, strength, and mobility following serious illness and injury, putting them at greater risk for accidental falls and other negative outcomes.
This is a problem with no ready solutions, but there is one action that Washington can take right now that will help: expanding access to telehealth-based care services.
While the administration has taken some steps to enable greater access to telehealth, their latest policy changes do not include physical therapy, so more must be done. In the case of outpatient physical therapy and other professions that treat patients suffering from chronic and acute pain, telehealth-based services will help ensure these at-risk patient populations can remain safely at home while still accessing the therapy services they need.
And most importantly, expanded telehealth services reduce human-to-human contact for patients and providers, thus mitigating their exposure to possible viral infection.
Current law, however, only allows reimbursement for physical therapy services delivered in the patient home or office/outpatient setting. Under existing statute, the same cannot be said for services delivered through virtual telehealth appointments.
This has to change. Not tomorrow. Not next week. But now.
With thousands of in-need patients self-isolated at home, physical therapists and other providers must be given every possible avenue to ensure continuity of treatment and care. Addressing the health needs of these patients while taking every possible precaution to insulate them from possible COVID-19 disease transmission is of paramount importance.
It is incumbent on Congress to address the problem as part of its broader effort to protect the Medicare patient population during this time of national crisis by including provisions enabling the delivery of physical therapy to beneficiaries via telehealth in any future COVID-19 legislation.
As we continue to mobilize our health care infrastructure to combat the spread and impact of COVID-19, I urge Congress to quickly address the needs of the vulnerable, elderly populations and expand access to telehealth-based therapy services.