All Hands on Tech: How Emerging Technology Will Impact Physical Therapy

All Hands on Tech: How Emerging Technology Will Impact Physical Therapy

I’m sympathetic to healthcare professionals who struggle with the idea of emerging technology. If I’m being honest, I need to admit that I often struggle with the remote control to my television. As a result, I understand the hesitation of healthcare professionals, especially physical therapists, in regards to utilizing technology in the workplace. I recently had the opportunity to witness the Oxford Debate at the 2016 APTA NEXT conference in Nashville, Tennessee that highlighted the controversy of healthcare technology. The “All Hands on Tech” debate consisted of two teams who playfully argued whether or not technology will advance the physical therapy profession, more than our hands and eyes. It was an entertaining event where costumes were worn and members of the audience physically moved back and forth, literally “taking sides” and cheering to show their support.

Physical Therapy Will Be Left Behind If We Don’t Embrace Technology.

The team in favor of the resolution consisted of Christopher Powers, PT, PhD, FAPTA, David A. Brown, PT, PhD, FAPTA and J. Cole Galloway, PT, PhD. The premise of their argument was that we are the only healthcare profession that still uses our eyes and hands to diagnosis and treat a patient. They highlighted that patients expect the most advanced diagnostic tools to be utilized in healthcare. People experience a sophisticated exam with an optometrist or an EKG with a cardiologist, and it’s time for physical therapists to start utilizing best-in-practice techniques and equipment to also aide in diagnostic accuracy. “We are stuck doing the same thing that we’ve done over the past 100 years and if we fail to embrace technology we will be left behind.”

Technology Is Often Inaccurate and Expensive. 

The opposing team, consisting of Shirley A. Sahrmann, PT, PhD, FAPTA, John Childs, PT, PhD, MBA, FAPTA, OCS and Edelle (Edee) Field-Fote, PT, PhD, FAPTA argued that “high-tech” isn’t synonymous with “diagnostic accuracy.” They used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as an example of technology that often identifies an abnormality, however fails to identify the source of a patient’s injury. This can cause patients to undergo expensive and unnecessary medical procedures. If you consider reimbursement for a physical therapy evaluation to be approximately $85 by an insurance company, the use of high-tech and often inaccurate diagnostic testing could increase that cost by over $1,000. “Who is going to pay for that type of service when we can appropriately diagnosis with our hands and eyes?” asked Sahrmann. “People in physical therapy are so keen about their personal interactions,” a power that has become obsolete in so many healthcare industries.

The final remarks during the Oxford Debate were clear. In order to move the profession forward we need to utilize the best-in-practice tests and measures while also embracing the power of hands-on healing. As a profession we can utilize technology to enhance what we do in the clinical environment to improve patient outcomes. Lastly, if we fail to transform with healthcare, we risk being left behind.  

Reality: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t.

Physical therapists have this incredible power to treat patients with their hands and eyes, but only for 30-60 minutes. They are then left completely in the dark until the patient’s next follow up appointment. Between appointments PTs have become accustomed to the phrase “no news is good news.” The manual therapy you provide for a patient is often negated by the patient’s inability to recall how they responded to the specific treatment. Far too often patients report “I think I felt better, but that was a week ago so I can’t really remember.” As a result, clinicians often replicate aspects of the treatment in hopes that the patient will begin to see improvement in their condition over the next 2-3 sessions. At that time, several weeks may have passed and the clinician is left without clinical insight regarding the patient’s recovery. As the responsibility of achieving good outcomes shifts to the provider, utilizing technology to enhance the techniques performed in the clinic, is about to become the new wave of physical therapy. Innovative technology, such as Healigo, will allow clinicians to treat smarter by providing insight into a patient’s recovery between clinical visits. 

How can technology enhance what you do in the clinical setting? 

Imagine a patient walks into your office, suffering from a hip injury. You complete a thorough physical examination and determine the patient would benefit from a number of skilled manual therapy interventions and dry needling. After completing the treatment, you select 3 home exercises to compliment the techniques you’ve just performed. Rather than giving your patient a paper printout, your patient downloads the Healigo app onto their smartphone. With a simple user-centered design, your patient will receive friendly reminders, have the ability to view high-definition videos of their exercises, track their progress over time, and inform you as a therapist about their adherence, daily pain level, and program difficulty.

To close the feedback loop, the therapist can log into their clinician portal to analyze the patient’s data and response to the dry needling and manual treatment performed in the clinic. Your patient is engaged in their plan of care and held accountable to complete their prescribed program. There’s no more vague recollection about how the patient felt after your skilled treatment. You know how your treatment impacted their pain level and more importantly, you are better equipped to make clinical decisions to help your patient recover, faster. 

Our profession won’t be replaced with drones or “technicians” behind expensive machinery. I think all who attended the Oxford Debate will agree that physical therapists are unique in the healthcare industry because we do utilize our hands and eyes to heal patients. The personal interaction and care a patient receives from a physical therapist is unlike any other professional in the healthcare industry. However, we can utilize emerging technology to enhance the patient-clinician relationship and to improve outcomes for our patients.  


Healigo is a Boston-based technology company building a patient engagement platform that enhances the clinician-patient relationship. To find out how Healigo can help streamline your practice, drive referrals and improve outcomes click here.