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A report released today revealed that virtual health technologies, when guided by a physical therapist, deliver ″clinically meaningful improvements in pain and function″ for patients with musculoskeletal conditions.

The report, Virtual Musculoskeletal Solutions Health Technology Assessment, was released by the nonprofit Peterson Health Technology Institute, or PHTI. PHTI independently reviewed more than 2,000 pieces of literature and concluded that many virtual MSK solutions offer clinical benefits to patients that are comparable to in-person physical therapy.

″This report is a critical contribution to efforts to advance cost-effective solutions in health care,″ said APTA President Roger Herr, PT, MPA, in a statement. ″ It validates the idea that early access to and use of physical therapy has the potential to lower costs and improve patient outcomes by engaging the expertise of physical therapists earlier in the episode of care.

This provides an alternative to costly imaging studies, procedures, and referrals for conditions that can be managed conservatively, and alleviates other overburdened providers in the health care system,″ Herr said. 

Physical therapist-guided solutions for some musculoskeletal conditions, such as low back pain, can provide a way to reach patients who cannot easily reach physical therapy clinics, such as those with mobility or transportation issues, or those who live in remote areas.

In an APTA press release, Caroline Pearson, executive director of PHTI, said, ″These solutions leverage technology to efficiently and conveniently deliver services that help patients recover and avoid high-cost care, thereby reducing overall spending. In order to realize their full potential, virtual MSK solutions should be more closely integrated with medical care and insurance benefits.″

The report estimates that if one-quarter of physical therapy users with low back pain moved to digital care, it would save an estimated $4.4 million per 1 million commercially insured individuals. In 2022, more than 215 million Americans had private health insurance at some point in the year, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The report also emphasizes the finding that digital health solutions guided by a physical therapist are superior to inventions that do not use a physical therapist. These findings are in line with the APTA Digital Health Transparency Campaign, through which 46 digital health care companies have pledged that physical therapist services must be ″performed or directed only by licensed physical therapists in accordance with all state regulations and APTA's Standards of Practice for Physical Therapy."

″This report confirms that physical therapy is an underleveraged, underutilized, and undervalued service in health care,″ Herr said. ″Virtual musculoskeletal solutions, when led by a physical therapist, could drive needed reforms to increase delivery of high-quality, affordable, and accessible care for improved patient health.″

For more on physical therapy and digital health, including the APTA foundational paper ″The Digitally Enabled Physical Therapist,″ visit our Digital Health in Practice webpage. A clinical practice guideline on telerehabilitation developed by APTA appeared in the May issue of PTJ: Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation Journal, ″Telerehabilitation in Physical Therapist Practice: A Clinical Practice Guideline From the American Physical Therapy Association.″