The pandemic has accelerated technology innovation and adoption in healthcare. It has also exposed many weaknesses and areas of improvement. While we’ve known about consumers’ rising preference for a more personalized healthcare experience, the explosive growth of telehealth and other digital experiences have patients seeking more from their healthcare experiences, including convenience, cost-effectiveness, transparency, and autonomy—and digital healthcare solutions tick many of these boxes. This also explains why the digital healthcare industry has recently (and rapidly) risen to become a multi-billion dollar market, particularly in musculoskeletal (MSK). So, how can MSK providers leverage digital care to benefit both their practices and their patients? Here’s what I expect to see in 2022.
MSK Will Reach More Patients through Tech
In an Archives of Physiotherapy cross-sectional review of patient-desired improvements of MSK care, one of the top areas included logistics of health delivery. This isn’t shocking, as we are aware of physical therapy’s access problem in only providing care for 10% of patients who could benefit from our services. Digital MSK companies know this too, so many offer an “anytime anywhere” care model. In short, they cater to today’s consumer-driven patient market by allowing members to communicate directly with their providers, providing convenient access, increasing patient self-management of their care plans, and reducing out-of-pocket expenses (for both patients and businesses).
Soon, I hope to see digital healthcare made more available to diverse and rural populations. Of course, this calls first for the closing of the “digital divide” to reach more patients. Hopefully, the recently signed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will push forward infrastructure expansion of high-speed internet in rural areas, with $65 billion set aside for broadband expansion. This alone could represent a significant shift in the number of patients accessing digital healthcare, including MSK services such as physical therapy.
The Future of MSK is Hybrid and Partnered
The truth is that we’ve known about consumers’ rising preference for digital health options for a while. According to a Deloitte survey, consumers’ use of technology for health purposes has increased exponentially since 2015, with 77% of people reporting positive outcomes from virtual health visits.
Understandably, mass digitization has many wondering if digital health startups will devalue or even displace their in-person services at brick and mortar clinics. While it is essential to understand how MSK digital services impact our industry, we must also remember that personal, human-to-human experiences and expertise simply can’t be replaced or undervalued.
Rather than adopting an attitude of digital health versus in-person services, we must embrace the idea of digital health and in-person care. In 2022, I expect to see physical therapists taking the initiative to expand their skillset and become certified in areas that will allow them to expand their clinical reach (e.g., hands-on diagnostics). This kind of professional development can elevate them to more of a diagnostician role, thus expanding our scope of practice and increasing direct access.
I also expect to see more providers viewing digital health companies as partners in the near future. More and more, we’ll see clinics incorporating and leveraging convenient options such as telehealth and virtual care; home exercise program apps, online scheduling and payment portals, digital patient intake options, and digital review options. Doing so can help therapists expand their clinical reach, meet patients’ desire for convenience and accessibility, and improve the patient experience.
Together, digital health services and tools pave the way for improved and steady communication with patients. This is true not only for current patients and notably those who have dropped off. Digitization tracks and initiates appointment reminders and can even alert patients to services specific to their needs based on their activities, hobbies and interests.
Engagement and Personalization Are Here to Stay
Human interaction will remain a key element of excellent MSK care despite the rise in digital health in 2022. A recent survey showed that 60% of respondents felt that being physically examined by a health professional in person was important to comprehending their health needs.
While tech is vital to facilitating high-quality, hands-on care today, an excellent patient experience still includes human engagement and personalization. Convenience and ease may draw patients in, but how patients feel about their care is what makes or breaks their long-term success. With their typical can-do attitudes, I know PTs will find the sweet spot of merging digital healthcare tools with their hands-on expertise.
The more we know about the benefits of digital health, the more we can leverage it to improve our patients’ experiences and remain resilient in an increasingly competitive space. In 2022, our profession will need to leverage digital health tools to improve patient experience and expand our clinical reach. In turn, our patients will win by knowing we are proactive when it comes to their health—and we will win by having more time to focus on providing stellar patient care.