Physical Therapy and COVID-19: PT Goes Virtual

Roslyn Sofer Physical Therapist at MOTION

By Roslyn Sofer, PT, DPT, Ph.D., OCS MOTION Physical Therapist

MOTION physical therapist and Touro College professor Roslyn Sofer, PT, DPT, Ph.D., OCS shares her experience delivering PT via telehealth during the age of coronavirus. Learn more about MOTION on the GO.

Why are you passionate about physical therapy?

I’ve been practicing PT for 56 years and I still love my job because it’s an ever-changing field that truly stimulates my love of learning. Being able to make a positive difference in the lives of my patients gives me great joy.

Recently, I was treating an 87-year-old patient who was suffering from posture issues and knee pain. She ended up coming to me for treatment after her former therapist blamed these issues on her age, making her depressed and preventing her from progressing. Now, every time I see her, she is improving and feels empowered because I was able to implant the idea that she can get stronger by simply exercising the right way.

Physical therapists are now seeing patients through telehealth during the pandemic. In what ways has telehealth impacted PT? Are there benefits to patients and providers?

At the beginning of the pandemic, we turned to telehealth because people still needed physical therapy yet couldn’t leave their homes. As physical therapists, we were previously accustomed to being up close and personal with patients to closely observe movement patterns, guide patient bodies into feeling better and teach strengthening exercises. We lost our ability to be hands-on during this pandemic. Now, everything must be done using demonstrations, pictures, and videos while therapists develop enhanced verbal communication skills.

Patients are benefiting greatly from telehealth as there is no gap in their exercise and stretching program while at home. Having human interaction via Zoom or FaceTime gives them something to look forward to, especially since many of my patients are geriatric and are feeling lonely due to social distancing.

For providers, we can have longer one-on-one sessions as previously they would see me for only part of their session and then use the machines or do exercises in the office. For providers, we have gained the ability to see how a patient functions in their home, which is invaluable and allows me to get a better sense of potential obstacles they’re dealing with.

Telehealth enables physical therapy patients, like the one pictured, to continue with their PT exercise program while at home.

Have you had to come up with creative therapeutic techniques to assist patients via telehealth? Can you describe what’s working?

I’ve definitely had to put on my creativity hat when it comes to leveraging therapeutic techniques virtually. For instance, if I’m working with someone who has balance issues and they live alone, there are certain things I’m uncomfortable with having them try when I’m not physically present.

To solve this issue, I have patients set up an environment that will keep them safe but still challenge their balance. For people who are in pain during certain movements, I use a tactic that enables them to stretch certain muscles or joints in a way that doesn’t hurt them.

The goal is that they will eventually progress to strengthening, without ever needing to put my hands on them. If it hurts when the patient lifts their leg up, then I will teach them to push down on the opposite muscle to relax the muscle that’s painful. I also constantly ask them to rate their pain level throughout, asking ‘is it better, worse, or the same’ to gauge the next steps in their recovery.

What are some do’s and don’ts of using telehealth?

Some do’s of telehealth are ensuring you’re familiar with the platforms your patients feel comfortable with using such as Zoom or FaceTime, having a dedicated space for appointments so you can avoid potential distractions, ensuring you have a reliable Internet connection, and always muting your phone when not speaking in a session.

Don’t take it personally if some patients prefer in-person visits after engaging in a virtual appointment. Also, never forget that you’re always on camera so avoid looking anywhere other than at your patient as it may seem like you’re not fully paying attention.

This interview originally appeared on The School of Health Sciences at Touro College’s website.