High Tech Physical Therapy is the Future — Innovate or Be Forgotten

Aug 31, 2022

The physical therapy profession is balanced on the knife’s edge between fully adopting technology and being a profession of specialists that was “once important, but now forgotten.”

A brief look at history will reveal many stories of companies who were once the talk of the town but became obsolete after a few years because they missed the wave of innovation and got washed out. For instance, the following companies were once household names: Kodak, Blockbuster, Blackberry, Sears, Myspace, Xerox, Toys R’ Us.

In almost every circumstance, these companies decided to rely on “what’s always worked” instead of embracing change and continually asking “how can this be improved?”

It’s clear that the physical therapy profession is in dire need of adopting technology if they want to keep up with a rapidly changing environment.

We are smack dab in the middle of a technological disruption in the healthcare industry.  Information that was once only available through the most advanced testing and treatment centers is now accessible on your wrist.

Smart watches can now track heart rate, O2 saturation, and sleep cycles, notice when you’re having a heart attack, and provide real-time data on running metrics correlated to fatigue and performance.

When clients have daily access to data like this, but then come into a physical therapy center that uses a plastic goniometer or relies on manual muscle testing for strength, the disconnect is laughable.

Let me draw a few more comparisons between the information available to clients and the “standard practices” at PT clinics that haven’t adopted technology…

When analyzing a walking gait, PT clinics that haven’t adopted technology simply have the client walk down a 15-foot hallway and observe their form with the naked eye. But if the client has a smartwatch, they’re able to measure imbalances from the left to right, step and stride length, and average heart rate. Smartwatches are even able to predict the likelihood of falling over with every step you take.

Also consider the home exercise program. Standard PT clinics usually print out generic programs that barely provide any explanations (and always default to 3 sets of 10 reps). However, if a client turns to online workout programs, they can find a plethora of resources — they can find options customized to their level of fitness with variable sets and reps based on their goals. They also have easy access to video instruction, performance and accountability tracking, and adaptability for progression or regression as needed.

There are many similar instances that have driven a wide chasm between a client’s experience in a standard PT clinic compared to the level of data they can get from modern, easily accessible technology.

Currently, 21% of all Americans use a smartwatch.  Almost one quarter of the population is tracking some aspect of their health, and that number is growing. People are showing a high interest in how their body functions and how to optimize their health and avoid disease.

Nearly half of all smartwatch users use the data from their smartwatch in conversations with their medical providers.  If people want as much data as possible about their daily health and fitness, they’re clearly craving a better and more in-depth experience from physical therapy. 

It is up to us within the profession to innovate and adopt technology to stay relevant.  

But, I also believe the potential is much greater than just that.

I believe physical therapists, more than any other medical practitioner, are the best suited professionals to help clients sift through their troves of data and draw meaningful conclusions from them.  As experts in human movement and function, we sit in the best role to adopt and embrace data and create a whole new, more engaging client experience.

Instead of being a profession that clients associate with pain and disease, physical therapy has an opportunity to be associated with health and wellness.  Instead of being boring, outdated, and obscure, physical therapy combined with technology can be fun, cutting-edge, and mainstream.

By adopting technology like inertial measurement units, force plates, vestibular augmented reality, muscle electromyography, and dynamic adaptive equipment, physical therapists can capture meaningful data that directly translates into real-world applications.  

Health data tracking is accelerating, and sadly, much of the PT profession is idly doing nothing. Rather than embracing the health technology disruption, the profession is becoming more fractured. PT clinics are veering towards hyper-specializations and dogmatic approaches that simply rebrand old theories into “hip and trendy” packages.

Which makes things sound more appealing, but they still lack substance.

By contrast, physical therapists that welcome and integrate innovative technology have the greatest chance to stay relevant and effective, allowing them to provide meaningful solutions to their “always connected” clients.

Don’t become the Blockbuster of physical therapy — a room full of ultrasound machines doesn’t count as “technology.”