Physical Therapists Want Flexibility and Digital Health Solutions Hold the Key

Updated on February 25, 2023

A OneStep survey brings forth data on career satisfaction and remote care adoption across the physical therapy profession

With healthcare workers leaving the field en mass, the physical therapy profession is no exception and is feeling the effects of a labor shortage. Clinicians are searching for ways to change their day-to-day and enjoy their careers more. Some are leaving the profession altogether, while others are cutting back their hours and embracing the gig economy where they can have more control over their schedules. The impact? A recent study revealed that in 2021, 22,000 physical therapists left the healthcare workforce. Work-life balance and flexible careers are topics of growing importance across all industries, but especially healthcare where the work can be physically and emotionally taxing at times. Physical therapists (PTs) and physical therapy assistants (PTAs) are being asked to meet increasing demands and productivity standards, while still being expected to provide outstanding patient-centered care. What they need now more than ever are digital physical therapy solutions that streamline clinical workflows, make their daily tasks easier, and offer them flexibility in how they manage patients.

Remote work is trending and PTs want in

Remote jobs and work-from-home opportunities became viable options for PTs and PTAs during the pandemic and have continued because of the benefits for both employers and employees. Some PTs were given a taste of this lifestyle when their organizations pivoted quickly to include remote care and monitoring services and found they could deliver high-quality care remotely. PTs could interact with their patients and continue to treat patients from anywhere, including the comfort of their homes, using digital physical therapy tools. While some practices kept remote care as a part of their model, others returned to traditional ways and resumed in-person visits as the only method of delivering care. It’s true, not all patients are appropriate for digital physical therapy. However, many are ideally suited for this mode of care and do exceptionally well. Physical therapists experienced the benefits of hybrid and remote care firsthand, and are now continuing to hear friends rave about the perks of remote work. Many of them are now searching for opportunities to continue delivering remote care and work with greater flexibility. 

We asked both PTs and PTAs which parts of their day they find dissatisfying – 57.4% of respondents chose rigid schedules and lack of flexibility in their careers.

Ever-increasing and unrealistic productivity standards was a close runner-up. When professionals feel stuck going through the motions of each day with increasing demands and no change in sight, it’s the perfect recipe for burnout. Unfortunately, 48.7% of respondents reported that they would describe themselves as feeling burned out in their current role.

PTs are looking for career changes

Some clinicians are looking to make entire career shifts. 55.7% of respondents said they have searched for non-clinical roles in order to improve career satisfaction. However, many PTs don’t want to fully depart from patient care – it’s what they love to do! What they want is a better way to treat patients that enhances the physical therapy experience. So how are they looking to make this change? According to the survey, 59.1% of respondents said they are applying to telehealth or remote care job postings. This finding is consistent with what digital health employers are experiencing. These employers are receiving hundreds of applications for single listings while many traditional organizations are struggling to fill open positions for months at a time. Even travel recruiters and staffing agencies are working with less of an applicant pool to fill in-person PT positions and are feeling the pressures of staffing shortages.

Give clinicians the digital physical therapy tools they need to create their dream career

PTs went to school to help people move better and make a difference in the lives of their patients. 67% of respondents reported that seeing patients reach their goals brought satisfaction to their day. Additionally, 70.4% said that treating and educating patients was another satisfying part of their day. At their core, physical therapists genuinely want to use their knowledge and skillset to help people move better and feel better. Unfortunately, with cuts to reimbursement and increasing patient volumes to compensate, little time is left for focusing on patient-centered care to the extent most therapists would prefer. For most PTs, this structure aligns differently from how they envision treating patients and finding a healthy work-life balance, so they can take care of themselves too. While some PTs continue to combat burnout, others have made the difficult decision to leave patient care behind or explore companies leveraging digital health solutions.

Clinics are becoming more creative as they look for solutions to engage and retain current employees, while also becoming the employer of choice for new applicants. Many are deploying new technologies that offer remote care services that both improve efficiency and convenience. According to our survey, of those currently using digital physical therapy solutions in their PT practice, 44.3% reported the solutions offer them more career flexibility and better work-life balance.

Why might this be? Digital health solutions break up the mundane and enhance the PT’s ability to do what they do best – care for their patients. Technology helps improve clinical decision-making, providing clinicians with heightened patient insight and objective measurements of patient progress so they can see the impact of their interventions in real time. Using digital health tools strengthens the therapeutic alliance by increasing convenient communication touchpoints and patient engagement, which improves clinical outcomes and patient satisfaction. Having greater scheduling flexibility, using innovative technology that works, and seeing satisfied patients who are enjoying their plan of care and achieving real results all help boost PT morale and remind them why they worked so hard to become a PT.

Still, as with any major change, there are challenges to widespread implementation and adoption of digital physical therapy solutions in practice.

Navigating a digital health transformation within the PT profession

With any transition, there must be a solid educational foundation. Clinicians want to understand how to implement digital health solutions in real-world scenarios while understanding the benefits to themselves and their patients. 30.4% of our survey respondents said that they do not feel properly prepared or educated enough in regard to digital solutions or telehealth. Fear of the unknown increases apprehension and can limit the adoption of technology. The Digitally Enabled Physical Therapist: An APTA Foundational Paper, is an excellent example of an educational resource designed to help PTs understand the digital health landscape and how they can leverage new technology to elevate their individual careers and the profession as a whole.

This foundation is beginning in physical therapy schools that have added digital health education into their curriculum. Though it is not mandatory at this time, introducing digital health to student PTs and PTAs is critical for the future of a digitally-enabled physical therapy workforce. Additionally, the creation of digital health continuing education courses and certifications will further enhance knowledge, skill, and comfort of use within the profession.

Continued research and strong evaluation of emerging digital physical therapy solutions are necessary to increase trust within the profession. Physical therapy is an evidence-based practice, and PTs are trained to critically evaluate their interventions and use current literature to ensure best practice. Their concerns must also be met with meaningful consideration and resolution – which is why many digital health companies have hired PTs to help create the technology that their profession will be using. Physical therapists understand the needs of patients and other clinicians best. 

“Digital health isn’t a possibility — it’s a reality. And members of the physical therapy community can best serve their patients when they understand where things are, where they could be headed, and how PTs and PTAs can leverage what’s available to them.” – The American Physical Therapy Association

It’s an exciting time to be a part of the physical therapy profession. By embracing digital physical therapy innovation, clinicians can create their dream careers with the flexibility they desire while also connecting with patients like never before.

Patrick Tarnowski is chief commercial officer at OneStep
Patrick Tarnowski
Chief Commercial Officer at OneStep

Patrick Tarnowski is chief commercial officer at OneStep.