Many occupational therapists have had to adjust their practices significantly during the times of COVID-19 due to stay at home orders or other interruptions.
This has forced a number of OTs to start doing telehealth, with some planning on incorporating it moving forward and others planning on going back to ‘normal’ and only doing in-person services. Some practices closed during stay at home orders and didn’t offer telehealth or telepractice at all.
These OTs are missing out on a number of benefits for both the OT and their clients, which as time goes on will leave them at a distinct disadvantage relative to the other OTs who have embraced the advantages of the medium.
Why Telehealth Will Only Become More Prominent
Practicing telehealth allows OTs to deliver teletherapy services to their clients regardless of physical location. Teletherapy services can be defined as “therapy services delivered face to face via secure, live, online video sessions.”
Telehealth is the preferred term of the American Occupational Therapist Association (AOTA). However, some occupational therapists that work in the field of education consider themselves more as educators than healthcare practitioners, which is why we often use the term telepractice which can be applied to education or healthcare.
Telepractice is a term used to describe a virtual business model that provides clients access to services regardless of distance and unavailability of providers and specialists. As an OT, having a telepractice is actually one of the best ways to connect with clients because it doesn’t rely on the client and clinician being in the same location.
Teletherapy services that are delivered via telepractice include assessment, intervention, and consultation.
While a telepractice model is crucial during situations such as COVID-19, it’s an important innovation for all OTs to look into moving forward.
Increased Flexibility Offers Advantages for Both Clients and Practitioners
More and more OTs are realizing the benefits of incorporating teletherapy into their traditionally in-person services. While getting the correct systems in place and learning the fundamentals can be a little challenging, maintaining telepractice clients is something that can offer increased flexibility for OT and patient alike as well as a great opportunity to expand your client base.
With the increased uncertainty since the rise of COVID this type of flexibility is important to maintaining consistency of services to be able to maintain and achieve outcomes for patients.
Increase Parent/Caregiver Engagement
When children attend their teletherapy sessions from home this provides a unique opportunity for the child’s parents or caregiver to become the facilitator. This allows them to engage in their child’s learning and development in a more hands-on way that otherwise isn’t possible.
When appropriate it may also be necessary to get in touch with the caregiver before a session to ensure that technical details like logins and passwords are taken care of so time in therapy can be focused on therapy, not technical issues.
This is especially true when the patient may not be able to do this themselves and may not have a facilitator with them at all times.
It also is important to set expectations with the parent or caregiver to make sure that everyone has the same understanding of what is expected to come from sessions, especially since the parent may be involved during the session in some situations.
A Better Learning Environment
While some OTs are hesitant to incorporate teletherapy practice into their traditional practice because they aren’t sure how their clients will respond, many children are actually incredibly comfortable with technology and this can be a fun, exciting way for them to engage with you during their sessions. For some clients, telehealth is actually a preferred environment because they get to interact with you from the comfort of their own home.
Getting Started is Simple
Starting to incorporate telehealth into your practice might sound intimidating, but all you need to get going is the following:
- Desktop or laptop computer or tablet
- High definition web camera, most likely included in the mobile technology
- Wide-angle camera may be needed if services are provided to classrooms via Smartboard Headset with a microphone
- High-speed broadband internet connection
- A private place where privacy can be maintained
- Appropriate software (HIPAA compliant)
- Any materials for your lessons (digital materials or physical ones, but with physical materials might need other technology to help use it properly)
Client Engagement via Teletherapy
It is common for OTs to worry that their teletherapy sessions won’t be as engaging for their clients as in-person sessions. However, it’s been discovered that teletherapy is just as effective as traditional therapy sessions.
There are things OTs need to be aware of in order to have the most engaging sessions with their clients.
Always Be Prepared: Professionalism Inspires Respect for Teletherapy
When providing teletherapy it can be easy to feel like it doesn’t need to be taken as seriously when working from home. However, OTs who have been providing these services for awhile cannot stress how important it is to be prepared.
Teletherapy is just as Real as In-Person Therapy
Some therapists might just approach this as a ‘Zoom’ call and be relatively informal, creating a perception of informality and lack of effort for the patient and parent or caregivers alike.
Taking preparation seriously is important for stakeholder buy-in and making it so that teletherapy looks and feels like the real thing and is just as effective. When clients see that it is taken seriously and that they are getting the same results this inspires them to look at teletherapy as the legitimate form of therapy it is instead of a stopgap for when in-person services are not possible.
Make sure you are familiar with your video conferencing platform ahead of time. Test it out with family members or friends and make sure you are able to navigate the platform smoothly and utilize any different features that could be helpful throughout therapy. This can also allow you to get feedback on different tools before using them with patients.
Another way to prepare ahead of time is to ensure you’re conducting sessions in an appropriate environment. Does it look professional? How is the lighting? You want to make sure it looks like you are in an office that is clean and that clients will be able to clearly see your face.
Logins and Credentials
Before having your first session with a client make sure that they know how to log in and access the platform. You could even conduct a test run if they feel uncomfortable with things being virtual. If the session is with a child make sure that an adult will be nearby in case they are needed.
Have a Backup Plan for Technology Issues- You’ll Eventually Need it
In case you run into technical difficulties, be sure to have a back-up plan and support numbers within reach just in case. Plan for what you will do if your internet stops working or you or your client aren’t able to connect to the platform.
Being prepared ahead of time will help the client to feel safe and supported, resulting in higher engagement and more productive sessions.
As telehealth becomes a regular part of your therapy regimen, it will be important to have these policies in place and know how to enact them, as it is only a matter of time until there is a technical malfunction (even if it isn’t your fault as the therapist). Regardless of if it is your fault, how prepared you are to deal with it and how you handle it will still reflect on you in your patient’s eyes.
The material that you use to engage with clients can make a world of difference. While being virtual means you aren’t connecting face-to-face, it is a great opportunity to utilize technology and all that the internet has to offer. Open any browsers and prepare tabs ahead of time.
When first starting out, it is better to over-plan your material for the first few weeks while you and your clients get comfortable with the new platform.
Fortunately, there are many interactive materials online that clients, especially children, find exciting including videos, games, PowerPoint presentations, Google Slide presentations, and online books. You can read more about materials for OTs to use in telehealth in this article.
You can also have clients use tools that they can find right in their home and encourage ongoing learning with the interactive materials you provide since they’ll have access to them online at any time.
Present Yourself as You Would Face-to-Face
When it comes to how you present yourself virtually, don’t overthink it, but do be conscious of things like tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures. Keep in mind that you will most likely be appearing in a small box on their screen so you want to be animated and warm in order to make clients feel as though you’re really in front of them. Always dress professionally and show up excited to connect with your client and help them develop their skills and abilities.
In many ways, having a telepractice is very similar to holding in-person sessions, but at times it can require a little more creativity. Don’t be afraid to try out new ideas and think outside of the box when engaging your clients. Even the smallest things, such as virtual high 5s, visual and verbal positive reinforcement, and sharing your screen can make a huge difference.
The most important thing is to be prepared, but don’t overthink it. If you are enjoying the sessions, your clients will pick up on this instantly and feel that it’s safe for them to enjoy the sessions as well.
Engaged Clients, Successful Telepractice
When clients are engaged, everyone wins. Your telehealth practice will thrive, your clients will reach new goals and improve their outcomes, and stakeholders will be satisfied.
OTs need to be prepared to implement a telepractice business model.
Learn More About Telepractice Certification