Finder is committed to editorial independence. While we receive compensation when you click links to partners, they do not influence our content.

Compare telehealth physical therapy

Your next PT visit may be virtual to keep your recovery on track.

Physical therapy relies on real-time interaction to help patients feel and move better, and telehealth is bridging the gap while social distancing guidelines are in place. But it’s a fairly new way of delivering care, so it has its limitations — and it’s not covered by all insurance policies.

How does telehealth physical therapy work?

Telehealth physical therapy (telePT) is the practice of providing physical therapy services via virtual platforms, rather than in person. It’s a form of telemedicine which relies on video conferencing to be effective.

Like all telehealth services, telePT is delivered in one of four ways, according to the Center for Connected Health Policy (CCHP).

ModalityHow it’s usedExample of this modality in action
Live videoTo facilitate real-time interaction between a physical therapist and their patient.A PT demonstrates exercises over a video call, and instructs the patient when it’s their turn. PTs might also consult other practitioners via video, such as yoga instructors or pelvic floor experts.
Remote patient monitoring (RPM)To track the patient’s progress virtually.A patient wears a FitBit and reports the average number of steps they take daily to their PT.
Store-and-forwardTo transfer medical records and other health data using a secure electronic platform.A patient uploads their medical history or most recent X-ray to an online portal, and a PT sends session notes via the same portal.
Mobile healthTo transmit health information using a smartphone or tablet.A PT texts a patient to let them know their Home Exercise Plan (HEP) is ready.

What’s changed during COVID-19?

While telehealth physical therapy isn’t new, it’s become a popular way for PTs to see patients who need continued — not emergent — care.

The industry quickly pivoted to offer more telehealth appointments and services, and most private insurance companies now fully or partially cover the costs of telePT sessions, according to APTA.

Compare telehealth insurance companies

Name Product Telehealth coverage Wellness support Membership required Average monthly cost
Zocdoc
Yes
Yes
No
$0
Understand your health plan by uploading your insurance card to your account, revealing your coverage details and in-network doctors
4 Your Health
Yes
Yes
Yes
$15
Get 24/7 wellness advice, meal plans, workouts and telehealth doctors, including psychologists and pharmacists. No insurance needed.
loading

Compare up to 4 providers

What are the benefits of virtual physical therapy?

Virtual health sessions including telePT are now the standard way to get care — at least for the foreseeable future. As APTA clarifies: “Telehealth will not replace clinical care. However, it will give PTs the flexibility to provide services in a greater capacity.”

The biggest benefits include:

  • Convenient and often cheaper than an in-person session.
  • Helps patients and PTs stay safe and healthy and avoid exposure to COVID-19.
  • Allows patients to receive treatment in the comfort of their own homes.
  • Increases communication between PTs and patients through online platforms.
  • Opens up more appointment times.
  • Makes physical therapy more accessible for those who live in areas where PTs are lacking.
  • Gives PTs a chance to assess the safety and accessibility of their patients’ homes.
  • Decreases dependency between patients and their PTs, which may speed up their recovery.

Limitations of telehealth physical therapy

On the flipside, telePT has its downsides. These include:

  • Lacks the manual adjustments that are often key to recovery, such as stretching, manipulating and putting pressure on a patient’s joints or muscles.
  • Limits access to therapeutic modalities, such as ice, heat and electrical nerve stimulation machines — though some clinics are starting to make these available to patients at home.
  • Forces PTs to get creative without the help of cables, assistive devices and other special equipment.
  • Can be challenging to make an initial diagnosis or evaluation. Depending on the severity of your condition, you may end up having to visit your PT in person.
  • Not always covered by insurance.

Conditions telePT can help with

TelePT focuses on physical rehabilitation, and PTs treat people with a wide range of injuries, conditions, disorders and disabilities.

These are some of the most common ones:

  • Headaches and neck pain
  • Joint and muscle pain, such as arthritis, sprains and muscle tears
  • Back pain, including slipped discs
  • Sports injuries, like tennis elbow, concussions and achilles tendonitis
  • Foot pain, such as plantar fasciitis
  • Hand disorders, like carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Jaw pain, including TMJ
  • Women’s health and pelvic floor dysfunction
  • Neurological conditions, including stroke, multiple sclerosis and parkinson’s disease
  • Pediatric conditions, like development delays, cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy
  • Poor balance and gait
  • Post-surgical rehabilitation, such as recovery after a joint replacement
  • Traumatic injuries, such as head injuries caused by car accidents

What can’t be treated with telePT?

TelePT isn’t suitable for these situations:

  • Any urgent conditions — if you have an emergency, call 911
  • Injuries that require deep tissue massage, like severe muscle strains and sprains
  • Injuries that require electrical stimulation therapy
  • Injuries that need to be diagnosed with an X-ray or ultrasound

How to set up your virtual physical therapy session

For a successful telePT session, follow these tips:

  • Find a quiet, well-lit area in your home. Your time with your PT is limited, so maximize it by eliminating distractions.
  • Lay out a mat and clear some space around it. You’ll need room to lie down, stretch, walk and turn around so your PT can see how your body moves.
  • Test your tech. Check your internet connection and make sure you have clear audio. It’s worth playing around with a few camera angles to ensure your PT has the best view of your body.
  • Grab any props before the session. Your PT will let you know what you need, which could include water bottles, tennis balls or dumbbells.
  • Wear form-fitting clothes, like workout gear. That way, you can move around comfortably and your PT can closely watch your form. If you have a specific injury, try to make sure that area is uncovered. For example, wear a tank top if you’re treating a rotator cuff injury.

What does a physical therapist do?

According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), PTs diagnose physical abnormalities and design treatment plans to help people:

  • Improve their mobility and balance
  • Manage pain and chronic conditions
  • Recover from injuries and surgery
  • Prevent future injuries and disorders

    Does insurance cover telehealth physical therapy?

    Private health insurance companies, Medicare and Medicaid have their own guidelines around telehealth, including physical therapy.

    The information below is general. For the most accurate answer, call your insurer’s benefits department and ask about their telemedicine reimbursement policies.

    Type of insuranceHow it treats telePT
    Private health insuranceMost major health insurers cover telemedicine, and many have increased their networks during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP).
    The list includes:
    • Aetna
    • Anthem
    • Blue Cross Blue Shield Association
    • Humana
    • Kaiser Permanente
    • Molina Healthcare Inc.
    • United Healthcare

    Many employers include telehealth as part of their health insurance plans, so check the fine print of your policy. If that’s the case, your employer may subsidize your consultation costs.

    MedicareTelephysical therapy isn’t covered by Medicare, according to APTA.

    But the association is advocating for legislation under the CONNECT for Health Act that would expand the use of telehealth services to include PT. We’ll update this page as we learn more.

    MedicaidEach state has its own rules and regulations surrounding telePT and telerehabilitation.

    All states have some coverage for telemedicine, but you may not be able to access the full suite of telePT services — like extended video consults and remote patient monitoring — under Medicaid.

    Ask an expert: In your clinical experience, which services can physical therapists provide virtually?

    Dylann Craig

    Dylann Craig, PT, DPT
    Physical therapist and owner of Impact Physical Therapy

    In the physical therapy world, many conditions can be evaluated and treated virtually. Oftentimes, body aches and pains stem from an imbalance between muscles — specifically the mobility and strength across our joints. When clients have multiple comorbidities, severe neurological deficits and/or high levels of deconditioning, it is typically best to hold an in-person session to be able to carefully monitor patient progress and response to treatment.

    How should patients prepare for a session with you?
    Clients should have ample space and be dressed to move during our telemedicine sessions. I always do a thorough movement and postural evaluation with all clients that requires them to stand about six feet from the computer/phone screen. I also frequently will ask the client beforehand if they have any workout equipment at home, including a yoga mat, resistance bands, dumbbells, kettlebells, stretching straps, yoga block and a foam roller.

    Do you think virtual consults will continue to be popular post-pandemic?
    Virtual consults will be here to stay for the foreseeable future. People love the flexibility of being able to access high quality PT services from the comfort of their own home, or even during travel. The ability to connect with your favorite mobility expert from afar is critical to staying vibrant and well!

    Ask an expert: Which conditions can’t be treated virtually?

    Alice Holland

    Alice Holland, PT
    Physical therapist at Stride Strong Physical Therapy

    Any conditions that need manual therapy that the patient cannot provide to themselves. This could encompass working on joints after surgery (e.g. after rotator cuff tear repair), or complex joint-related disorders in the spine, or any manual treatments for neck pain.

    How should patients prepare for a session with you?
    I very much advocate the use of a laptop to hold the telehealth visit. A laptop camera can be propped up hands-free, and can be moved around the room or different spaces untethered. Phones and desktops are a hindrance to telehealth PT. Also, the patient should make sure they have received a link to the session prior to the visit, and also make sure mic, graphics card and software are all in working order and have compatible operating systems to the telehealth program.

    Do you think virtual consults will continue to be popular post-pandemic?
    I do think virtual sessions and consults will be popular post-pandemic, especially for those workers who do not have the flexibility in their schedule to separate themselves from work/obligations to travel to see us. I predict that it could encompass as much as 25% of our patient visits. It’s also a great tool to use for patients who need weekend or immediate care from a bout of pain. However, there is a lot of orthopedic and neurological therapy that cannot be done virtually, so that is why I cap telehealth visit potential to 25% of our total patient care.

    How to find a telehealth physical therapist

    Your doctor may refer you to a practitioner if you have an injury, condition, or disability that requires physical therapy.

    Otherwise, you can search for one on your own using APTA’s online directory. Consider booking an initial consultation to make sure you like the PT’s personality and style before scheduling more sessions.

    Do I need a doctor’s referral?

    It depends on where you live.

    Most states allow you to visit a PT via “direct access,” which means you don’t need a doctor’s referral to book an appointment, according to APTA. That applies to telePTs, too.

    These states include:

    • Arkansas
    • California
    • Connecticut
    • Delaware
    • District of Columbia
    • Florida
    • Georgia
    • Indiana
    • Illinois
    • Kansas
    • Louisiana
    • Maine
    • Michigan
    • Minnesota
    • New Hampshire
    • New Jersey
    • New Mexico
    • New York
    • Ohio
    • Oklahoma
    • Pennsylvania
    • Rhode Island
    • South Carolina
    • Tennessee
    • Texas
    • Virginia
    • Washington
    • Wisconsin

    However, there are restrictions. For example, some states limit the number of visits you can schedule without a referral, while others require a referral if you need a special procedure, such as a needle EMG.

    In Alabama, Missouri and Mississpi, direct access is limited to certain patients, such as those with a previous medical diagnosis.

    What are my alternatives?

    If you don’t have a private space at home or a stable Internet connection, you still have options to get physical therapy.

    • Mobile physical therapy. Some PTs are offering mobile services, where the PT sets up in-person sessions in the comfort of the patient’s home. The PT can bring any specialized equipment, and this limits exposure to just one person coming into your home.
    • In-person. As more clinics and doctors’ offices reopen, going back to physical therapy may be an option for some. However, this is highly dependent on your city and state’s current guidelines.

    Can I get telehealth occupational therapy?

    Yes. Many occupational therapists turned to telehealth to continue treating their patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    While it’s similar to physical therapy, occupational therapy focuses on helping injured, ill and disabled patients to recover and develop the everyday skills they need to live and work. For example, they may teach a stroke victim how to get dressed or help those with chronic conditions learn how to stretch for pain relief. They often work with children in educational settings, too.

    Telehealth is less hands-on, but occupational therapists can use virtual platforms to do the following:

    • Review patients’ medical history and evaluate their condition
    • Watch patients perform various tasks
    • Develop a treatment plan for patients
    • Demonstrate helpful exercises
    • Assess the patient’s home and suggest functional improvements
    • Explain how to use and where to set up adaptive equipment, like leg braces, wheelchairs and eating aids

    They also use the four modalities to send secure messages and home exercise platform (HEP) exercises to their patients, pull up patient records, and host video sessions.

    The American Occupational Therapy Association lays out the ways each state treats telehealth, and the site features a list of health insurance companies that have added telehealth services to their policies in light of the pandemic.

    Bottom line

    Thanks to telehealth physical therapy, patients can continue to receive care and manage their pain and medical conditions, but it has its trade offs — like a lack of manual adjustments and less access to specialized equipment.

    Most private health insurance companies pay for telePT, but Medicare doesn’t and Medicaid reimbursement varies between states.

    More guides on Finder

    Ask an Expert

    You are about to post a question on finder.com:

    • Do not enter personal information (eg. surname, phone number, bank details) as your question will be made public
    • finder.com is a financial comparison and information service, not a bank or product provider
    • We cannot provide you with personal advice or recommendations
    • Your answer might already be waiting – check previous questions below to see if yours has already been asked

    Finder.com provides guides and information on a range of products and services. Because our content is not financial advice, we suggest talking with a professional before you make any decision.

    By submitting your comment or question, you agree to our Privacy and Cookies Policy and finder.com Terms of Use.

    Questions and responses on finder.com are not provided, paid for or otherwise endorsed by any bank or brand. These banks and brands are not responsible for ensuring that comments are answered or accurate.
    Go to site