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What Is Outpatient Physical Therapy Like During COVID-19?

in-person PT during coronavirus

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Key Takeaways

  • Outpatient PT clinics should be following guidelines from the American Physical Therapy Association to safely facilitate in-person visits during COVID-19.
  • You can expect a mask requirement, increased disinfection of equipment, and fewer patients being treated at one time during COVID-19.

If you are injured and need to participate in rehab, you may be eager to resume physical therapy in-person. Is it safe to go to an outpatient PT clinic at this stage of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic? It depends on whether or not the office you plan to visit has made certain operational changes.

During outpatient physical therapy, a PT will likely have to get close to you to examine you and help you move better. That means touching you, coming into your personal space, and possibly increasing the likelihood of exposure to each other's respiratory particles.

Here's how PT clinics are working to prevent this kind of COVID-19 transmission.

New Physical Therapy Clinic Protocols

In May, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) published guidelines for outpatient PT clinics to follow while offering in-person visits during the COVID-19 pandemic. These guidelines describe several components of a safe PT appointment.

Interview

When you call to make your first appointment for outpatient PT, the receptionist may interview you over the phone to ensure that you have had minimal chance of COVID-19 exposure. Questions may include:

  • Have you left the country during the previous 14 days?
  • Have you traveled from your immediate area recently?
  • Have you been exposed to any person with a known diagnosis of COVID-19?
  • Do you have a dry cough, difficulty breathing, or body aches?
  • Are you experiencing a sudden and recent loss of taste or smell?
  • Are you feeling generally unwell?

Answering "yes" to any of these questions may cause the receptionist or PT to discourage you from attending PT at the clinic. You may be asked these questions when you arrive for each and every appointment to the outpatient PT clinic.

Signage

When entering the outpatient clinic, you should notice signage that indicates the clinic takes the threat of COVID-19 seriously. Signs should tell visitors and patients to wear face coverings, and there should be signs and indicators about social distancing. A lack of information or signs about COVID-19 may indicate that this particular clinic is not closely following protocols for minimizing COVID-19 risk.

Temperature check

When you arrive at the PT clinic, a therapist or assistant may take your temperature. Any sign of an elevated temperature may mean illness, and you may be asked to exit the clinic and self-quarantine.

Masks

Don't be surprised to find that all physical therapists, assistants, and employees are wearing masks or face coverings in the PT clinic. This helps to decrease the amount of respiratory droplets from exiting one person's mouth or nose and possibly infecting you or others around you.

You likely will also be asked to wear a mask during your PT sessions. It may be uncomfortable wearing a mask while exercising and moving around, but the goal of minimizing unwanted exposure should be more important than some mild and temporary discomfort.

Waiting Areas

Chairs in the waiting area should be spaced six feet apart. Markings on the floor in front of reception and check-out desks can help patients and visitors remain spaced apart if a line starts to form.

Some clinics may even have you wait in your car or outside the clinic until your appointment time.

Equipment Cleaning

Don't be surprised if your PT is running a little late for your appointments. Most PT clinics have upped the ante when it comes to cleaning and disinfecting equipment.

Your PT clinic should be following Centers for Disease Control (CDC) protocols for cleaning equipment. Every surface and piece of equipment should be cleaned and disinfected after each visit.

To keep equipment as clean as possible, you may also be asked to wash your hands before your appointment.

Scheduling Patients

Many busy outpatient PT clinics are changing their schedules to facilitate social distancing. Some clinics are extending their treatment hours and limiting the number of patients that can be seen at one time. They may also be staggering schedules of their therapists to spread out patients and prevent crowding.

Monitoring Employees

Every employee of the PT clinic should have their temperature checked when arriving for work, and specific protocols for isolation should be in place if someone shows symptoms of COVID-19. Any employee who has any illness should be quarantined immediately and sent to their physician for a COVID-19 test.

One way to minimize disease spread is to ensure that all employees of the outpatient clinic are screened daily. This means daily interviews about symptoms and temperature checks before starting each shift in the clinic.

If You're Nervous About In-Person PT

A telehealth PT visit is an option if hands-on treatment is not absolutely necessary for your condition.

A Word From Verywell

Physical therapists are considered essential workers. They help people move better and feel better after injury or illness. Most often, the work that outpatient physical therapists do is not considered life or death, but it does improve quality of life.

If you are injured and need to work with a PT in an outpatient clinic, you should understand the protocols in place. By ensuring your PT is keeping you safe from COVID-19, you can focus your energy on returning to your optimal level of function and activity.

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  1. American Physical Therapy Association. Considerations for outpatient physical therapy clinics during the COVID-19 public health crisis. Updated May, 2020.

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