Oct 26th 2021

Virtual Care Effectively Supports Patients with Musculoskeletal Conditions

The use of virtual care, through telehealth visits and other digital means, was greatly expanded at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even though its use has decreased somewhat in recent months, telehealth is undeniably here to stay.

The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) defines telehealth as “the use of electronic information and telecommunication technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient and professional health-related education, health administration, and public health."

Virtual care such as telehealth takes advantage of platforms that connect a patient directly to their physician, their physical therapist, or their chiropractor, as well as apps, software, and wearable devices that enable an exchange of data and information. Telehealth has been shown to offer a variety of benefits, including increased access to medically necessary care, added convenience for patients, and lower cost.

People affected with musculoskeletal conditions who need treatment may be able to take advantage of virtual and digital care options.

Virtual care for musculoskeletal pain

Telehealth has long been used to expand access for people in rural areas and those with limited access to medically necessary care. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of telehealth has expanded to incorporate more types of virtual care and more patients are taking advantage of the option. For example, telehealth provides access to care for people affected by a variety of musculoskeletal conditions, according to a recent study.

“Several systematic reviews have demonstrated that telehealth can provide improvements in pain, physical function, and disability that are similar to that of usual care for individuals with musculoskeletal conditions such as osteoarthritis, non-specific low back pain, or following total knee arthroplasty," the authors of "Telehealth for Musculoskeletal Physiotherapy" noted.

Telemedicine has also enabled residents of long-term care facilities access to timely orthopedic care, and has been well-received by patients and telemedicine liaisons alike.

Quality care for patients with musculoskeletal conditions is cost-effective

Here's some good news for everyone: Virtual care can reduce the expense of provider visits. "Video-assisted orthopedic consultation for selected patients is cost-effective," theAmerican Family Physician notes. Follow-up care, too, can be done virtually in some clinical scenarios.

For example, we know that lower back pain is the reason many people venture out to see their doctors, and that physical therapy as frontline treatment for lower back pain is much more cost-effective than starting with advanced imaging. While there may be times when a physical therapist needs to see a patient face-to-face, there are many opportunities to provide excellent care virtually. For patients with limited access to healthcare services, telehealth can minimize delays in diagnosis and treatment of painful musculoskeletal conditions.

Research also suggests that early management of lower back pain can reduce the need for costly surgery down the road.

Wearable technology can support individuals with musculoskeletal conditions

Telehealth is not the only type of digital care that's trending. Wearable watches and other technologies also enable people to potentially reduce their likelihood of sustaining an injury on the job, which is a major source of musculoskeletal injuries.

“Using wearable technology that incorporates biofeedback, personal data, and microlearning, coupled with data analytics and scrupulous communication to workers about the use of wearable devices can help organizations significantly reduce injury risk in the workplace," noted Soter Analytics.

For example, workers may be able to use a device with sensors that can detect the start of a movement at high risk for injury. With that awareness, injuries could be avoided by making changes to workplace ergonomics, posture, and using assistive devices for lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling. This wearable sensor technology has the potential to help people with a range of conditions that affect gait, such as Parkinson's disease. With sensors attached to their clothing, shoes, canes, or skin, they could get an auditory and/or visual cue to help them stop and correct their movements to reduce their risk of falling.

The potential goes beyond the workplace, too. You might be able to use wearable technology at home. You could employ your smartwatch to help you out, but there are also other types of wearable technology with sensors, including insoles for your shoes, and bands for your wrist.

Over time, with biofeedback from data collected by such devices, you may be able to learn what activities you're doing that could result in pain and injuries. Then you can learn how to avoid making those movements and develop better habits that reduce your risk of falling, slipping, or sustaining injury in some other way.

If you're using a wearable device that collects data that you can track via an app or upload to a platform, you could share this data with your healthcare provider so they can get a better sense of the movements you're making.

What patients can expect from virtual care

What should patients expect from virtual care for musculoskeletal pain? As you'd expect, a telehealth appointment will be a little different from a traditional office visit. A recent report in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics explored how chiropractors at two worksites in California pivoted to begin offering virtual care for patients when the COVID-19 pandemic began. The services that could be provided via telehealth included examinations, risk assessments, advice, and guidance on rehabilitative exercises.

Of course, a hands-on physical examination would not be available, because a chiropractor or physical therapist cannot physically touch patients. During a virtual care consultation, the chiropractors in the California study asked patients to move in certain ways and demonstrated exercises. In addition to audiovisual feedback from the chiropractor or other virtual care provider, data from wearable devices can provide complementary inputs to support the consultation.

By offering certain types of care via telehealth, providers can deliver cost-effective access to consultations and quality care for patients with musculoskeletal pain and conditions. And shifting some consultations to virtual care will likely yield another key benefit. “[It] may indirectly improve access to care for patients requiring in-clinic care," the authors of the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics report note.