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How technology is changing the future of physical therapy.

The number of Americans suffering from a chronic disease is skyrocketing - in 2016, one out of every five Americans (50 million!) had chronic pain, which isn’t great for the country, but it does mean that the demand for physical therapy is on the up and up. This, in addition to the aging population, means that we need the capacity to care for more people with musculoskeletal problems, so they do not resort to higher risk and higher cost treatments like surgery and opioids when they are not required. #ChoosePT.

You know the whole supply and demand thing? This is good for us. As physical therapists, we have the skills to help, now we need to find ways to make sure that all of these people are getting the help that they need.

One way to deal with this issue is through job creation. In 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that 71,800 new physical therapy jobs will be created by 2024. Welcome to the profession, new and future physical therapists! It’s a good one, and it’s only getting better.

However! Less than one out of every ten people, who could benefit from physical therapy, received physical therapy treatment. Why is that? While we don’t know for certain, we believe a few of the main reasons are awareness, accessibility, and affordability.

Perhaps technology can allow existing physical therapists to treat more patients. The way this can be achieved is through harnessing technology through automation of some of our more repetitive, low-value add tasks such as the measurement and logging of patient movement. By creating time, clinicians have either more time to spend educating their patients and treating them or have time to treat more patients. The aim of this is to improve clinic efficiency and allow existing physical therapists to better help current patients and to treat more patients.

Technology can also be used to spread awareness and even generate excitement about seeking musculoskeletal care, and even enable new business models catering to the nine out of ten non-consumers of physical therapy.

This may sound a bit sci-fi, but technology like this actually already exists.

Have you heard of something called computer vision? If you have, congratulations, you’re a nerd. It’s when a camera is able to recognize objects such as people in their frame of view. This sounds kind of simple, but this step in technology is completely changing the assessment process for our profession.

Imagine having your patient stand in front of a camera, which instantly recognizes and locks onto each joint and measures all of their joint angles as they move. With no markers, no attachments, your patient just has to appear human and perform your prescribed movements.

That’s pretty cool, right? Instant motion capture (MOCAP) with zero set-up time.

Now imagine that this data is instantly compared with normative movement data and issues in specific body areas are instantly flagged to the clinician.

Guess what? It’s already a thing!

Markerless motion analysis is transforming patient flow in clinics across the country by automating the analysis of movement. It’s been proven to be more accurate than visual assessment and it’s quicker because multiple body joints can be dynamically assessed at once. Pretty cool, right?

Why Now?

Historically, academic biomechanics labs and Hollywood systems adopted multi-camera, marker-based systems, which are the gold standard of accuracy. However, operational complexity meant that MOCAP was largely impractical in the clinical setting. Recent advances in computer vision, as well as hardware, have made markerless systems accessible to the clinic, enabling practical (or as we say, clinical) motion analysis.

How it Works

Many motion analysis systems use a standard color image camera, just like your cell phone’s camera. 3D motion analysis systems use depth-sensing components (e.g. infrared depth sensors and wearables). Computer vision algorithms allow for the elimination of wearables and markers. These algorithms are trained to recognize the shape of the human, and the person’s body joints. Clinical markerless motion analysis products eliminate the need to post-process motion capture data. This saves physical therapists sweet precious time. More time for video games! Ahem. I mean more time to help more patients!

You, my friend, are irreplaceable.

I know this article may be setting off alarm bells for some of you, mostly regarding being replaced by robots. But the great news is that physical therapy is not the kind of profession that can be fully automated. Physical therapy is a highly specialized, manual, and a human-centered profession. So do not fear, physical therapy is unlikely to be replaced (unlike real estate brokers, and telemarketers, which are at the highest risk of being replaced), but you can harness technology to make your clinic more efficient on an operations level. By automating repetitive, lower-level tasks, we can focus on our skills that can never be automated: empathy, perception, and manual therapy.

Are you ready to use technology to your clinic's advantage? PhysioFuturism is now!

This article was written by Merci Greenaway for Merci is an Australian physiotherapist. She is EuMotus’s lead scientist and physiotherapist in residence. Merci has authored multiple scientific publications and was a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Most importantly, Merci is passionate about helping empower PTs, and pushing the profession forward!

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