Physical therapist Sinead Fitzgibbon typically starts her appointments by asking her patients a series of questions. How is the range of motion in that stiff shoulder? Is that gimpy knee responding to the strengthening exercises she prescribed?
Next, she’ll ask the patient to show her just how much progress they’ve made since the last appointment, or where the pain is most acute to see if it is necessary to treat it gingerly or press on with more aggressive exercises.
But the difference is today Ms. Fitzgibbon can consult with her patients just as easily if they are sitting in her office on Bay Street in Sag Harbor or checking in from halfway across the world.
Ms. Fitzgibbon and George Wilson, her partner in 27eastPT, have recently introduced a telehealth option to their practice, using software provided by doxy.me.
“We have been testing the program for a few months because we were planning to start using it independently of the coronavirus outbreak,” Ms. Fitzgibbon said. “We were strategizing of using it for snow days or for patients who were sick or unable to come to the office.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and the call for social distancing that has come with it have combined to put those plans on fast-forward as an efficient way to reduce exposure to the virus among staff and patients. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” Ms. Fitzgibbon said.
Telehealth — or at least remote — services are nothing new. One can visit the website of just about any major health insurance company and find an option to consult with a doctor or nurse online. As the coronavirus forces people to self-quarantine, many healthcare providers are also moving in that direction.
Most people probably think of physical therapy as being too hands-on for remote consultations to be effective, but Ms. Fitzgibbon said that is not the case.
“The narrative the patient tells us — how the symptoms occurred, how irritable they are — accounts for 80 to 90 percent of the plan of care,” she said.
Ms. Fitzgibbon said while she has seen a number of local patients, she has also been contacted by new patients from afar through referrals. One patient, who signed in from Miami, had suffered a torn hamstring; another, contacting her from Montreal, had a shoulder issue.
That’s not to say in-office visits and the use of the exercise equipment available there will become a thing of the past. Ms. Fitzgibbon said there will always be times when a patient needs to come to the office for treatment.
“But we feel strongly that much of the manual therapy we do can be replaced with techniques for self-management we can teach a patient,” she said. “Our whole goal is to get people independent in their rehab. We are just the conduits to help.”
Ms. Fitzgibbon said she and Mr. Wilson chose the doxy.me software because it is compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act for privacy, unlike other options, and easy to use for patients who may not be that tech savvy. All they have to do is follow the link on the new 27eastPT website.
Today’s high deductible health care plans often skimp when it comes to covering things like physical therapy. Ms. Fitzgibbon said even if the remote service is not covered by health insurance, a patient can get proper treatment and guidelines for self-care with a limited number of visits in a cost-effective way that might catch the attention of insurers. “It’s containing costs by helping the patient remain independent,” she said. “Long term, we think it is going to be a really good strategy for us.”