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The Surprising Upsides of Virtual Physical Therapy

Going Virtual

Bre Stuhlmuller is an LA-based doctor of physical therapy (DPT) who practices at Origin, a leading provider of virtual and in-person physical therapy for women and individuals with vaginal anatomy. Dr. Stuhlmuller is especially interested in helping women through their pregnancy/postpartum journey and strives to help her patients understand the purpose behind the therapy they are receiving so they can begin to relate to their bodies differently and take an active role in their rehabilitation process.

 

When Covid ramped up in 2020 and Origin began to focus more fully on virtual care, many PTs were excited about this new way to reach patients. Although the prospect of working from home piqued my interest, I was still skeptical. I dabbled in virtual care at the beginning of my time at Origin, with the occasional appointment here and there. Even still, the concept of it was hard for me to fully grasp and I couldn’t say that I loved it. It felt unknown and even intimidating. I love to connect with my patients — establishing a good rapport is one of my strong suits — and I was worried that what I did in person wouldn’t translate the same way through a screen.

Looking back, I realize my attitude was very much informed by what I’d learned in training. I had a mentor during one of my rotations who emphasized the importance of human touch, how it was integral to the healing process. What would assessment and healing look like if I couldn’t use my hands?

To be fully transparent, manual therapy had also become a fallback for me while caring for my patients. If a patient was struggling to understand a concept, I could use my hands to show them. If I found myself at a loss of what to do next, I could provide manual therapy — it was always welcomed, felt productive, and gave me time to plan. With virtual, I knew I would have to rethink how I approached my assessment and treatment strategy, and I had no idea what that might be. 

New Fuel for Creativity & Connection

When it was clear I didn’t really have a choice, I gave virtual PT a try for more than just those occasional appointments. At first, as I was building up my caseload, it lived up to my not-so-positive expectations. It just wasn’t the same and I felt completely out of my element. It wasn’t until I began filling my caseload entirely with virtual visits that it began to surprise me. 

As I engaged more consistently with patients on Zoom, my creativity kicked in. Without my hands to fill in the gaps, I really had to think about the cues that I was giving and how I was explaining things. Suddenly, my mind was lighting up with new ideas and ways of getting my point across. Where should the patient be focusing their attention? What should they be noticing or feeling?

I began helping patients tune into their bodies, instead of solely looking to me to give them information. Often, when I first ask “What do you feel when you do X?” a patient’s first response is vague and unsure. Then I’ll try again, talking through the concepts and movement in more detail. I’ll describe the outcome I am after and provide analogies and examples. If that doesn’t work, I’ll have them try a different position, or experiment with a new analogy that relates to their life and specific situation.

What happens next has been so encouraging — I see them have a pretty powerful ah-ha moment. (And because they’re not wearing a mask, it’s great to be able to see the understanding on their face!) They’re connecting with and learning from their body directly, which gives them so much empowerment. They tap into their own abilities instead of only relying on mine, which is exactly what we hope to give to our patients. On my side, I continue to gain clarity and hone my communication skills. I’m excited to share that despite doing all of this through a screen, my connection with patients feels as strong as ever.

That’s not to say that patients aren’t missing manual therapy! If you’re a PT who sees patients in person, you know how much they like (and often expect) it. I think they can tend to rely on it too much — and a decent number of people really want to come in and just get something like a massage. That can be a struggle. We are not massage therapists. And unfortunately, some patients think they need it in order to get better. I think that will be an ongoing struggle when it comes to getting patients to try virtual physical therapy. But, in my experience, once they do try virtual, they are quickly won over.

The Habit Building Power of Home

Another unexpected benefit of virtual physical therapy is the level of follow-through. For starters, patients cancel much less, which makes sense — it’s a lot easier to hop on a Zoom call at the last minute than it is to get in the car (and find parking). And if childcare isn’t available, they can keep an eye on their kids while we do our visit. We may not always get quite as much done, but at least we are able to do something, which I’m constantly reminding my patients is always better than nothing. 

Along the same lines, in the few months since I’ve switched to solely treating virtually, I’ve been surprised to discover that patients seem more consistent with their exercises, not less. We’ll be collecting more data on this at Origin, but my guess is that being introduced to an exercise in the same environment where they’ll be doing it on their own makes a difference. When they do their exercises with me during a virtual visit, they’re creating a foundation of a habit. Later on, when it’s time to continue on their own, they can pick up right where they left off.

As much as I absolutely love our clinics at Origin  — having all the equipment on hand, the music playing, and the other patients and PTs around — it is a very different experience for patients compared to being at home. At home, patients have to self-motivate and are limited to the equipment they happen to have or are willing to buy. Starting from scratch in their own space can often be a major barrier.

When we’re in a virtual visit, I can help a patient set up the space where they’ll do their exercises, and we can improvise. They may need to use a thick pillow instead of a pilates ball, or a rolled-up towel instead of a yoga block. This eliminates all those excuses along the lines of, 'I couldn't do my exercises because I didn’t have X.’ It not only helps me stretch and refine my skills as a PT, it helps patients gain more agency— it encourages patients to get into the mindset of “let’s see how I can make this work with the resources I have.”

Just as invaluable is being able to coach a patient through functional movements. I can watch a new mom lift their baby out of their crib or get up from their couch, then give tips and recommendations that are specific to their setup. Then I watch them immediately apply those tips and feel the difference. And boom, I know they’ve got it.

Tips for PTs Interested in Going Virtual

As a PT, having a separate, designated space to work is critical. At first, I was doing it in the corner of my bedroom, next to my bed, with limited lighting. Although I made it work, it was awkward to not have room to move and didn’t serve my patients the way I wanted. I have now made a space in our garage with bright lighting and a white backdrop behind me. You don’t necessarily need a whole setup, but you want to ensure that your patient can see your entire body when demonstrating movements or exercises. And of course, you need strong, reliable wifi!

One challenge that comes up is that virtual patients can be distracted at the start of or even throughout a visit. Because they’re at home and may have just stepped away from kids or work, they may need time to refocus. This is very different from being at the clinic, where the few minutes it takes to check-in and get settled helps them be more present. So I’ve learned to expect this, give them some grace, and will spend a few minutes bringing their attention back to their goals.

I also want to say that I do miss being in the same space with other Origin PTs. I miss the time in between patients when you can have those quick, but incredibly helpful conversations like “oh have you had a patient who presents like this,” or “let’s go into a room and I’ll show you how I do this.” It’s hard to recreate that kind of spontaneous interaction online. We have a shared Slack channel where PTs can chat throughout the day about our cases and although it helps to fill in that missing gap, it can also be nothing but crickets and still lacks that same feeling you get physically being in the office with your colleagues. 

One major perk, however, is being able to spend more time between patients with my 2-year-old daughter. It makes being a working mama feel a little less of a sacrifice. But don’t get me wrong, it also comes with its challenges. I don’t have that same downtime driving to/from work to decompress and switch between mom mode and work mode. And it can be easy to get distracted between appointments and do chores or play with my daughter instead of cranking out my notes. At some point, I imagine I will want to split my time between the clinic and working from home. But for now, I am honestly more than content working virtually.

Origin is already working on new ways to integrate virtual and in-person therapy — thinking beyond either/or, toward a model where we can choose what works best from patient to patient and visit to visit. In the meantime, I’m excited to continue with virtual care and our patients are loving this option. My schedule has been more full in the past 4 months than it was before I went virtual, and I’m seeing more people get better under my care. It’s truly amazing to see them making so much progress, right at home. 

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