Telehealth and Occupational Therapy: A New Frontier
Telehealth, also known as teletherapy, is becoming an exciting new avenue for providing occupational therapy services in a variety of settings, especially once so many therapy clinics made at least a partial shift to remote work in 2020.
If you aren’t entirely familiar with telehealth, what is it?
Telehealth, as defined by The Center for Connected Health Policy,
“Encompasses a broad variety of technologies and tactics to deliver virtual medical, health, and education services.”
Telehealth is not a service in and of itself, but is instead a means to provide medical services, like occupational therapy, through different forms of technology.
These include real-time, two-way video calling through computers, smart phones, or tablets, email or text communications, and virtual transmission of recorded video to and from patient and practitioner.
These new means offer OT clinicians increased methods to provide education and interventions for individuals in need of OT services.
Benefits of Telehealth Expanding in Occupational Therapy
Even in non-Covid times, telehealth in occupational therapy offers a huge benefit for people living in rural areas who might not otherwise have access to much-needed OT services.
With telehealth, patients and occupational therapists alike can reduce extremely long travel times and greatly increase the reach of OT. This benefits the patients as well as the therapists that traditionally drove long distances from home to home.
Teleheath also offers the convenience of staying at home and avoiding the annoyances of traffic, parking, commutes and long waits in waiting rooms.
OT Settings That Can Provide Telehealth
While occupational therapy is often thought of as a hands-on profession – especially in rehab settings – there are many other OT settings that can benefit from using telehealth when appropriate.
Some settings that may benefit from telehealth services include:
- Children and Youth
- Health Promotion/Health and Wellness
- Early Intervention
- Home Health
- Home Modifications and Aging in Place
- Mental Health
- Outpatient Neuro Rehab
Some Drawbacks of Telehealth in Occupational Therapy
While telehealth opens many doors for patients that cannot access OT services, there are a few possible cons to using it as well.
With the increased use of technology, more patient information is online and could be compromised if it is not on a secure platform. Because of this, clinicians need to be hyper-aware and safeguard any patient information in order to stay “hip to HIPAA.”
Another drawback of providing telehealth is currently the lack of OT license portability.
At this time, OTs can only provide teletherapy services to patients in states where an OT license is held. Obtaining and maintaining licenses in multiple states is costly and cumbersome, so at this time telehealth in your home state is generally the easiest option.
Some good news on this is that AOTA announced in September 2019 that they are going to work with NBCOT and the Council of State Governments to create an interstate licensure compact to make it easier for OT clinicians to practice in multiple states.
At the time of this post’s 2022 update, AOTA and NBCOT have stated that the OT Compact legislation was expected to be introduced in at least 10 states in 2021, but it is unclear when the licensing compact will actually take effect.
So as of 2022, you will still have to obtain a license in each state you wish to practice telehealth in. For regular compact updates, be sure to check out the OT Licensure Compact site.
There’s an Advantage for Hands-On Therapy
And lastly, as I briefly mentioned above, some occupational therapy settings have to be hands-on. In acute rehab, for example, we are often hands-on with ADL retraining, transfer training, balance activities, neuro-re-ed, etc.
In many outpatient settings, such as hand therapy, OTs often need to be with the person to evaluate, perform manual therapy, or fabricate splints.
Because of this, teletherapy won’t work in all settings. There will always be patients that will need our in-person services. But for those who will benefit more from our education instead of hands-on training, telehealth will provide many new avenues and an increase in occupational therapy services provided.
Getting Started in Telehealth
If you’re interested in working as a teletherapist and you are in a setting that would benefit from telehealth, be sure to check out the following resources to learn more about how you can get started:
AOTA created a page chock full of helpful telehealth articles, ranging from professional guidance articles, a Telehealth Q&A series, and practice articles. All of this information is free to both members and non-members.
AOTA also created this helpful article for OT practitioners looking to start telehealth services to practice OT safely in the times of COVID-19. It’s definitely worth checking out as it includes helpful information on current rules/regulations and Medicare’s teletherapy reimbursement information.
Sarah Lyon from OT Potential has done a terrific job compiling up to date information regarding telehealth in OT. The guide includes comprehensive information on getting started in telehealth, reimbursement info, telehealth research and platforms that can provide telehealth services.
If you’re interested in what it’s like to be an occupational therapist working in telehealth, be sure to also check out our article, A Day in the Life Working in OT Teletherapy featuring telehealth occupational therapist Rachel Morris, OTR/L.
Have you worked as a teletherapist, or have you considered trying teletherapy out? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments below! If you have any telehealth companies or resources you’d recommend, please share them as well.
This article was originally published on May 15, 2017 and updated on April 23, 2020 and February 4, 2022.