What’s Happening & What’s Next in Physical Therapy Technology
Ask any older person what healthcare was like when they were young, and you’re likely to hear some interesting stories. (It wasn’t all that long ago that doctors were still endorsing cigarettes to treat respiratory issues!) Fortunately, as our understanding of human health continues to evolve, we’ve learned from many of our past mistakes and made some incredible advances in medical treatments and technology.
Physical therapy is one of the best examples—modern technology enables astounding recoveries from conditions that might have previously caused lifelong disabilities. And for patients with chronic conditions, the technology used in physical therapy clinics can significantly improve their quality of life.
From telehealth and virtual reality to robot-assisted prosthetics, technology is making physical therapy more accessible and effective for patients all over the world.
What Is Physical Therapy?
Physical therapy is the field of healthcare focused on restoring physical function, mobility, and motor skills in people with all types of medical conditions. Whether patients are recovering from a sports injury, a stroke, or major surgery, physical therapy is essential for managing pain, rebuilding independence, and maximizing overall quality of life.
Because physical therapy deals primarily with movement, it’s a very hands-on type of healthcare. Technology in physical therapy is becoming increasingly widespread because it enables PT providers to deliver more precise and effective treatments to more people. Let’s explore some of the benefits of technology in physical therapy and take a look at a few of the most exciting advancements currently happening in the field.
The Benefits of Technology in Physical Therapy
Patients, providers, and healthcare facilities all benefit from improvements in physical therapy technology. It’s significantly increased efficiency in PT clinics, enabling them to treat more patients while maintaining a high standard of care.
Physical therapy technologies lead to better outcomes for patients, as physical therapists are able to gather objective data about each patient’s progress and alter treatment programs as necessary. It can keep physical therapy patients more engaged in their treatments, especially when using immersive tools like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Ongoing improvements in adaptive equipment have also allowed many people with disabilities to regain a level of independence previously thought impossible.
As the world becomes increasingly connected, it’s also becoming more common for patients to receive physical therapy via telehealth. This is especially beneficial for rural, remote, or otherwise underserved areas where access to care can be very limited. When people can get the care they need without spending lots of time and resources traveling to see a specialist, they’re much more likely to address their health issues.
Technology Used in Physical Therapy
Telehealth and Remote Monitoring
Telehealth or remote medicine is increasingly popular among many patients, as they’re able to meet with a healthcare provider in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. Patients receive the same amount of individual attention they would at an in-person appointment through a video conference on their phone, tablet, or laptop.
Telehealth physical therapy is a game-changer for expanding access to care in areas with few healthcare providers. For many patients, the chance to consult with a qualified physical therapist can be the difference between a speedy recovery and a lingering problem that affects many aspects of daily life.
Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM) technologies are also gaining popularity in the physical therapy world. After physical therapists develop treatment programs, their patients can use wearable devices to track their progress and even monitor for correct form during exercises. These tools can also collect data on a patient’s range of motion, pain levels, and other data physical therapists need to cater treatments to each individual.
Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are becoming increasingly common in rehabilitation programs because of their versatility and effectiveness in engaging patients. Traditional physical therapy exercises, while effective, can be mentally draining because they require lots of repetition. But in an immersive virtual world, patients are able to stay motivated and focused—and sometimes even be distracted from chronic pain that’s interfering with their progress.
VR physical therapy has applications for many different types of patients. It can be useful for rebuilding strength and range of motion, gait and balance training, or practicing fine motor skills. VR therapy is also useful in neurological rehabilitation for people who have experienced a stroke, traumatic brain injury, or other similar conditions.
Wearable Devices and Sensor Technology
Wearable devices and sensors help physical therapists diagnose and monitor their patients to ensure their safety and develop an appropriate treatment plan. These devices may be used to monitor vital signs of vulnerable patients in inpatient settings, or as an aid to help patients continue their rehabilitation. They can also help physical therapists diagnose balance issues or biomechanical problems and gather information about a patient’s range of motion or movement patterns.
For many patients, these technologies are useful in training gait and posture, as “smart” devices can provide alerts when the wearer needs a reminder to focus on healthy movements. These devices also provide helpful biofeedback for patients working to strengthen their brain-to-body connection. Combined with other rehabilitation tools like VR, they can help patients improve mobility and coordination and build overall body awareness.
As biomechanical sensors become smaller, more powerful, and more economical, they’re sure to see increasingly widespread usage in all types of physical therapy settings.
Robotics and Assistive Devices
While physical therapy will always require a human touch, robotics are helping clinics become more efficient, and patients become more independent. In some clinics, robots assist patients with dynamic strength and mobility exercises. In others, robotic exoskeletons help patients relearn how to walk, or practice their balance in unpredictable environments without risk for falling.
Robotic assistive devices have enabled huge leaps in the quality of life for people with long-term disabilities. Robot-assisted prosthetics help people with limited strength or motor skills perform a variety of daily tasks and activities. In certain patients with missing limbs or extremities, robotic devices can even help restore sensory feedback.
For years, most robotic assistive devices have been controlled with switches and buttons or by moving other parts of the body. However, recent research in mind-controlled robotic prosthetics has shown significant promise. While we’re still a ways off from the cybernetic limbs you see in sci-fi movies, it’s exciting to think about what the near future holds for robotics in physical therapy.
Gamification and Digital Rehabilitation
Humans have been turning mundane tasks into entertaining games for centuries, if not longer. It’s a phenomenon that also applies to physical therapy patients. Gamification harnesses our desire to accomplish goals and be rewarded, and it’s quite effective in motivating physical therapy patients to continue their treatment plans.
Digital rehabilitation tools often combine with other forms of physical therapy technology to make the recovery process more interactive and engaging. They could be a VR platform where patients use targeted movements to simulate petting animals or planting a garden, or a motion-controlled video game that encourages a broad range of activities and exercises.
Data Analytics and Evidence-Based Practice
In science and healthcare, there’s no substitute for objective data. Physical therapy technology helps collect information that’s useful on a number of fronts. Physical therapists use biofeedback data to refine each patient’s treatment plan, and help their recovery progress as quickly as possible. Health researchers also aggregate individual patient data to spot trends and determine the effectiveness of certain treatments. Large-scale health data is essential in everything from crafting public policy to developing new healthcare technologies.
Like most healthcare facilities, many physical therapy clinics also use data analytics to determine ideal patient volumes, forecast supply and resource usage, and make decisions about staffing and practice management.
Patient Education and Home Exercise Programs
As any physical therapist will tell you, the determining factor in most patients’ recoveries is whether or not they perform their prescribed rehabilitation exercises at home. Many people will only see their physical therapist a few times a month, so their progress ultimately depends on continuing their treatment plan on their own time.
The rise of mobile apps and multimedia platforms for physical therapy has made it much easier for patients to stick with their rehabilitation programs. Physical therapists can load treatment routines straight into a patient’s app, so their home instructions are always up to date. When patients are easily able to track their progress, watch a quick refresher video on how to perform their exercises or get real-time feedback on their movements, it encourages accountability and consistency.
The Future of Technology in Physical Therapy
Technological advancements happen amazingly quickly, and the technology used in physical therapy is no exception. In the near future, motion sensors will become more accurate and streamlined, robots will transition from futuristic novelty to widespread use, and VR platforms will become increasingly immersive.
Emerging technologies like machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) will also undoubtedly have a role in physical therapy. These have been a hotly debated topic lately, and we’re only scratching the surface of what they’re likely to become. The ability to gather and process vast quantities of health data has the potential for major breakthroughs in diagnostics, treatments, and preventative care.
Still, as physical therapy technologies continue to evolve, there are some important ethical and social considerations that shouldn’t be overlooked. As digitized health data becomes increasingly robust, healthcare providers and organizations must take appropriate measures to ensure patient privacy and prevent their confidential data from being distributed inappropriately. And as tools like AI become increasingly widespread, physical therapists must find ways to maintain a human touch in their practice. While technology will help PT clinics become more efficient, there’s no replacement for the compassion and communication patients receive from an experienced provider.
Train for the Future of Physical Therapy at Provo College
Technology in physical therapy has the potential to revolutionize patient care. While it’s impossible to predict what the future holds, it’s inspiring to consider the potential for life-changing new treatments, especially for people who have chronic conditions or long-term disabilities.
If you’re considering a career as a physical therapist assistant, it makes sense to choose a school that’s up to date on the latest technological advancements. In the physical therapist assistant program at Provo College, you’ll learn from experienced instructors and build a solid foundation that prepares you to adapt to future technological breakthroughs.
As the industry evolves, physical therapy providers who stay up to date on the latest developments in their field will be well-positioned to have a long, successful career helping their patients achieve active, independent, and fulfilling lives.
Looking to learn more about what it’s like to be a PTA? Check out our in-depth guide on how to become a physical therapist assistant, or read up on an average day in the life of a physical therapist assistant.