Physical therapist Sarah Stone hadn't taken part in a telehealth session during her six-year career in medicine. In the last two weeks, however, she's conducted nearly 20.
Stone — who works at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Northwest D.C. — told 7 On Your Side the status quo was not ideal amid COVID-19.
"Typically on a normal, non-COVID day, we would have 100 to 200 people in the gym seeing our therapists. So, obviously, that's not exactly very safe in this time and age. So, using the telehealth option allows us to give that therapy to individuals that would normally come into the clinic."
Stone admits the transition to telehealth, which is essentially a video appointment, has been an adjustment for patients and providers alike. Yet, telehealth has provided a unique glimpse into patients' lives, particularly for Stone, who works predominantly with spinal cord injuries.
"Normally we can't go into a patient's home and see what they're talking about. So, I had a patient get on her bed and show me how she rolls. [In the gym] she would always say, 'It's difficult rolling on a mattress,' but we were always on sort of a hard-mat surface. So, now we can actually get in her bed, practice the rolling, see if we can adjust things so she can do something more functional in her home."
In 2017, MedStar Health patient Michelle Garrett fell inside of her residence, damaging a disc in her back. In 2018, the Southwest D.C. resident began physical therapy. She typically attends two or three sessions a week at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital.
"My therapist approached me and asked me about [telehealth]. She asked me if I was interested. I said, 'Yes, I was.'"
To this day, Garrett experiences considerable nerve pain linked to her 2017 fall. Because of that, she relies on a walker, and her son, for day-to-day mobility but is actively learning how to navigate staircases.
"This video thing is awesome," stated Garrett, who has completed three telehealth sessions to date. "At first I was a little skeptical because it's not like a one-on-one, but it was rather challenging. I think she made me perspire more in the house than when I'm at therapy."
John Brickley is Vice President of Outpatient Physical Therapy for MedStar Health. He explained telehealth is "surging" because of COVID-19.
"We needed to get a telehealth platform up quick, and we did. We're proud to say we got it up and running in two-and-a-half days," Brickley stated. "Day one we treated 125 patients via telehealth. A couple of days later we processed the 300-mark and today we should be over 500 patients being seen safely in their homes via telehealth."
Those figures only account for MedStar Health's physical, occupational, and speech-language pathology patients. The numbers are far greater when you take into account all providers across MedStar Health's more than 350 "footprints" in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.
"We're not going to say telehealth can replace hands-on care, but it certainly augments it," Brickley added. "We're doing this for all diagnostic populations, whether it's someone with a spinal cord injury, a brain injury, a sports injury, someone hurts their back, orthopedic issues, the whole gamut."
MedStar Health operates 51 outpatient therapy sites across the DMV. In addition to telehealth video appointments, it recently launched an app where patients can communicate directly with their therapists via a text feature. Although the technology has existed for some time, there was simply never a reason to use it en masse, until now.
"It's not to say that we're not still seeing some patients at our sites, we are, but we're minimizing that risk," Brickley noted. "I'd say now the majority, the vast majority of our visits are done with telehealth."
As for Stone, she continues to implement creative tools to adapt to telehealth. For example, she and some of her colleagues are asking patients to lift a water bottle to measure functional strength. Once COVID-19 is in the world's rearview mirror, Stone would like telehealth, or at least some form of it, to remain a go-to instrument in therapy.
"I would really like to see this continue on. I know that right now it's just a COVID-19 thing, but I think this is a tool that could be really helpful in the PTO world for someone who may just need a little extra help on their home-exercise program or someone where you want to see into their home... for a virtual-home visit."