4 Benefits of Virtual Physical Therapy for Resolving Chronic Back Pain

November 30th, 2021  by  Dr. Dylan Peterson, DPT – - Physical Therapist at Hinge Health

During the pandemic, virtual physical therapy was adopted overnight as employees felt increased back and joint pain during remote work. But what is virtual physical therapy? It’s more than your members being able to do their exercise therapy program from the comfort of their home without ever driving to an in-person appointment or taking time off work. For example, at Hinge Health, sensors and computer vision technology track their full-body motion and provide real-time feedback while they do their exercises at home. They can follow a personalized “playlist” of daily exercise therapies through an app on their phone. And finally, they can chat with their online physical therapist on their phone or iPad via video.

In addition to being a convenient way of doing physical therapy online from the comfort of home, virtual physical therapy is a powerful new model of care that can overcome key challenges for your members and drive better outcomes. As a doctor of physical therapy at Hinge Health, I can tell you that we are constantly raising the bar on how we deliver and design our digital physical therapy program. ]

How virtual physical therapy overcomes key barriers

For a person negatively affected by their environment, being healthy can be difficult. Environmental factors such as poor access to healthy food, lack of safe sidewalks, and limited access to public transit inhibit good habits.

Obstacles can also keep people from getting the care they need to treat pain or injuries. When we have to travel long distances, take time off work, find child care, or pay costly medical bills, we may be less motivated to visit a doctor or medical specialist. For many types of medical care, however, technology can overcome some of these environmental hurdles.

Physical therapy online, for example, has emerged as a promising way to nudge people with chronic pain in the right direction. Here are four benefits of virtual physical therapy that I’m seeing from my work at Hinge Health.

What are the benefits of telehealth physical therapy?

1. The right care in the right place at the right time Virtual physical therapy breaks down hurdles to care. When people have access to the advice and treatment they need, they can get back to doing the things they love.

One of our clients, Chelsea, is a runner who struggled to go up and down stairs after an acute knee injury. Describing the benefits of virtual physical therapy, she said, “Being able to see a physical therapist online allowed me to start the recovery process quicker.” After just a few weeks, Chelsea was back to running. “I’m back to doing the activities that make me really happy,” she said.

Whether the member works in a rural area with few physical therapists or can’t afford to take time off work, Hinge Health’s innovative approach to online physical therapy delivers effective care while giving them a greater sense of control over their treatment.

2. Better patient adherence Research involving millions of people has shown that, on average, exercisers whose gym is five or more miles from their home will go there only once a month. However, if the distance to the gym is four miles or less, their average number of visits increases fivefold.

Similar obstacles prevent people from complying with in-person physical therapy programs. Studies show that adherence rates can be as low as 30%. Virtual physical therapy has a better track record, in part because it is logistically easier and more engaging.

At Hinge Health, we pair our physical therapists with behavioral health coaches and physicians to provide an integrated care team. Our one-on-one health coaches drive adherence and accountability, helping members stick to their virtual physical therapy program. According to research conducted by Hinge Health, 70% of program participants continue to do their exercises two years later using our virtual physical therapy program.

3. Access to robust patient data Virtual physical therapy leverages sensors and computer vision technology that allow Hinge Health to collect robust patient data. That information helps us identify the unique factors that serve as nudges or obstacles for each person, enabling us to personalize care.

When I work as a physical therapist in a clinic setting, I often have to wait a week or more for a patient to return for their next appointment. If they were unable to do their exercises and adhere to their care plan, it’s only then that I find that out.

Virtual physical therapy addresses these issues head-on. Hinge Health uses sensors, computer vision, and an easy-to-use app that collects information about the patient’s adherence and whether they’re performing exercises with correct form. I get instant feedback about what’s working and what isn’t. For example:

  • Did an exercise end up being too painful?
  • Were the exercises too time-consuming?
  • Why did this person skip all the floor exercises?

With that data, I can make personalized adjustments, and the patient can incorporate the changes immediately into their online physical therapy treatment plan.

Moreover, through HingeConnect, our integrated digital healthcare team is connected to a participant’s electronic medical record data at their in-person providers. This allows us to view their medical history and personalize their care plan. HingeConnect also flags, in real time, current prescriptions, such as an opioid or surgery order from their in-person provider. This enables our care team to intervene and recommend our nonaddictive wearable Enso device for pain relief or offer a second opinion from one of our in-house orthopedists on whether surgery or conservative care is the best option. We have found that 80% of participants who speak to our in-house expert for a medical opinion end up choosing a less expensive treatment option.

4. More cost effective and scalable Recent evidence suggests that virtual physical therapy and the science of small nudges can pay off for health plan members and employers alike. Members see, on average, a 69% drop in pain after 12 weeks of participation with Hinge Health, significantly improving their quality of life.

The financial impact is also meaningful. A multiemployer control-matched medical claims analysis conducted in 2021 demonstrated a 2.26x return on investment for musculoskeletal medical claims. In addition, the Validation Institute independently validated that medical claims for Hinge Health participants were reduced by an average of $2,244.

Virtual physical therapy drives better outcomes

Undoubtedly, our environment shapes our decisions and behaviors. Over time, small nudges and obstacles can add up, and they can have positive or negative consequences for our health. For people with musculoskeletal pain, virtual physical therapy has proven to be a successful approach to eliminating obstacles to care and motivating them to take positive steps to improve their well-being.

Are you interested in learning more about how your organization can leverage physical therapy online by partnering with Hinge Health? Check out some of the frequently asked questions below and request a demo today!

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Dr. Dylan Peterson, DPT
About the Author

Dylan is one of Hinge Health’s Clinical Specialists. He is originally from Minnesota and earned his BA in Philosophy with a minor and Psychology at Fort Lewis College. After that he earned his Doctorate of Physical Therapy at California State University - Sacramento. When he is not in the office helping the Hinge Health community as a physical therapist and pain consultant, he is an avid trail runner and not-quite-sub-4-minute-miler.

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