As we have watched the opioid epidemic spread across the United States, we’ve arguably seen small-town Americans hit the hardest. Drug overdose fatalities are at an all-time high and have increased with alarming frequency in rural areas. In many communities, there are not enough health care professionals to provide care, which should include pain management alternatives for those who need it. Patients with chronic and acute pain face a difficult choice – should they gamble with an addictive substance for relief or accept their suffering?
A third option for many patients, however, should be physical therapy (PT). For Americans seeking a pain management alternative to opioids, PT is a proven option, but the wide disparity in access for rural communities, unfortunately, makes it hard for many individuals to receive this safer, effective treatment option. Countless patients who are suffering from chronic and acute pain lack access to PT because of where they live.
Research already evidences these disparities. For PT specifically, recent estimates indicate that the demand for physical therapy services is on trend to increase in the coming years – and roughly 27,000 more physical therapists will be needed by 2025 to meet that demand. Driven by an aging population and need for pain management, the number of licensed physical therapists must grow, and quickly, to meet the needs of those in pain.
Fortunately, lawmakers are working to address this issue. Bipartisan members of the House of Representatives and the Senate have introduced legislation that aims to significantly improve access to physical therapy services. The Physical Therapist Workforce and Patient Access Act (S.970 and H.R. 2802), introduced by Sens. Angus King (I-Maine), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and John Shimkus (R-Ill.), would increase the number of licensed PT professionals by allowing aspiring physical therapists to participate in the National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Loan Repayment Program.
Administered by the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NHSC Loan Repayment Program incentivizes young medical professionals to commit to practice in underserved communities that have been designated as health care professional shortage areas.
Regrettably, current law does not allow physical therapists to enroll in the NHSC loan repayment program. If passed, the Physical Therapist Workforce and Patient Access Act would address this problem by allowing physical therapists to access this program.
Passage of this critical bipartisan bill just makes sense. Recent discussion and effort to encourage pain management alternatives beyond opioid-based medications will only increase demand for PT. To meet this increasing national demand, obfuscation is no longer an option. I urge Congress to pass this legislation so that all Americans can access the safe, professional, and effective PT services they need to manage their pain and improve their quality of life.
Nikesh Patel, PT, DPT, is a physical therapist and executive director of Alliance for Physical Therapy Quality and Innovation.