What to Know About Telehealth for Cerebral Palsy

A combination of telehealth and in-person care can work well

Cerebral palsy usually requires ongoing medical treatment, and telehealth can be part of this care. Telehealth has been an option for some components of cerebral palsy care for years, and it has been shown to be feasible and beneficial.

The effects of cerebral palsy can be relatively mild, such as a dragging foot or weak hand. But it can also have substantial effects, such as learning challenges, seizures, impaired swallowing, trouble speaking, difficulty walking, or generalized stiffness and tremors. Many of these issues can be managed with a combination of in-person care and telehealth. 

Telehealth in cerebral palsy can be used for assessing motor skills and physical therapy

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors’ offices are taking precautions to see patients safely in person, but if you are more comfortable staying home, it should reassure you that telehealth is already established as a viable option for many aspects of your cerebral palsy management.  

When to Use Telehealth for Cerebral Palsy 

There are a variety of situations in which telehealth can be useful in cerebral palsy care. After the diagnosis is established, the condition usually involves repeated assessments and a variety of continuing interventions. 

Evaluation

You will need periodic evaluations of your physical and cognitive functions, such as assessment of swallowing, motor strength, coordination, and communication. Your evaluations can be completed via telehealth when you have certain equipment and devices that can measure your abilities and send the results to your doctor or therapist.

Training

Consistent training is often needed to maintain the lasting effects of strengthening and coordination exercises. You can have frequent training sessions using telehealth, including live interaction with your therapist.

Your therapist can guide you and watch your progress, adjusting your training as needed. Sometimes, you can also use prerecorded training sessions in between your live sessions.  

Primary Care

You will need regular medical checkups for general health maintenance. This can include things like talking to your doctor about your eating and sleeping habits.

You may also need additional health maintenance for specific issues related to your cerebral palsy—such as seizures, muscle stiffness, and more. You and your doctor can have regular appointments via telehealth to ensure that these issues are taken care of and that you have medication or other treatment adjustments as needed. 

Check on Problems

You can develop any number of health problems, some of which are related to your cerebral palsy and many that are not. You can schedule a semi-urgent medical appointment if you have issues like low fever, abdominal discomfort, or a burning sensation with urination.

These visits can serve as a triage, during which your healthcare provider can decide if you need to be seen in person, have a diagnostic test (such as a urinalysis), or need treatment. 

When You Need to Be Seen in Person

Sometimes cerebral palsy care requires in-person medical attention. Situations not generally adequately managed via telehealth include: 

  • Diagnosis: Cerebral palsy is typically diagnosed during infancy or early childhood. Signs include impaired physical or cognitive development, eye movement problems, or seizures. Children with cerebral palsy have abnormal muscle tone, delayed motor development, and certain reflexes that can be assessed by a specialist. An in-person physical examination is required. 
  • Fittings for braces, walkers, wheelchairs: Therapeutic and mobility devices address many of the problems associated with cerebral palsy. These types of devices need to be well-fitted. As your child physically grows in size, the devices may need adjustments. For optimal benefits, fittings and adjustments should be made in person. 
  • Laboratory tests or imaging: The diagnosis of cerebral palsy often involves imaging tests. New medical issues, such as an infection, can involve blood tests or additional testing. These diagnostic evaluations need to be done in person. Sometimes your doctor can discuss the results and make treatment plans via telehealth based on these tests. 
  • Procedures: If you need a procedure, many will have to be done in person. 
  • Emergency care: Any issue that poses an urgent threat to your health—shortness of breath, change in consciousness, or sudden, severe pain—must be managed in person. 

Benefits and Challenges 

Using telehealth for cerebral palsy care offers several advantages. As telehealth for cerebral palsy has been increasing in the years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, research has shown that using this method of getting health care improves outcomes for people who are living with cerebral palsy.

Advantages include: 

  • Frequent and regular visits: When you need to schedule many healthcare visits, you can fit them in more easily when you don’t need to devote hours for transportation, time in the office waiting room, and more. 
  • Mobility: Getting to and from appointments can be a challenge if your mobility is impaired and if you use assistive devices to get around.
  • Coordination of care: Often, telehealth visit medical notes can be easily shared by providers, aiding in coordination of care. 
  • Real-life application: Providers can observe the impact of interventions in your day-to-day home environment when you use telehealth. For example, if your therapist or doctor is recommending ways for you to get around at home, you can show them how you are implementing mobility devices right where you live.
  • Communication: If your speech or hearing is impaired, you can type what you want to say or use transcription during some telehealth visits to facilitate communication. 
  • Help from family or caregivers: Your caregivers can add useful information or clarify instructions by speaking with your providers using telehealth, even if your caregivers wouldn’t have been able to accompany you to an in-person visit.

Challenges 

When you have cerebral palsy, you are likely to get your medical care from many different providers. One of the biggest challenges of telehealth for cerebral palsy care is that you may need to find another provider if one of your providers does not provide care via telehealth.

You might decide that you want to stay with one or more of your in-person providers if you have worked well with them rather than transferring that part of your care to telehealth. 

How to Prepare for a Telehealth Visit for Cerebral Palsy 

There are several steps in arranging and preparing for your telehealth visit. Start by asking your providers if they offer telehealth and if your payer covers these visits. Then, for those providers who can easily accommodate you via telehealth appointments, you can decide if you want to switch some of your visits to telehealth.

For those who don’t have this service in place, you can find a provider through your payer network if switching to telehealth is a priority for you.  

Will Insurance Cover Telehealth for Cerebral Palsy?

Policies regarding telehealth have been changing recently, and you will have to check the most updated regulations regarding your plan when scheduling your visit. Medicare, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), and private insurers provide telehealth coverage for some services.

It is best to check about the cost you would be required to pay before making an appointment. If you do not have health insurance coverage, your provider’s office can tell you the cost of your care before your visit.

Then you need to figure out if the technology you already have at home can be used for telehealth appointments. You may need help from a friend or family member with this. If you can’t use your own device for your telehealth visits, you may be able to use the device of a family member, your local library, or a community center.

Before your visit, be sure to note any medical concerns that you have, and get any necessary in-person tests before your medical visit so your provider can check your results. If possible, take a video of any issues that you have been having with mobility or symptoms that occur from time to time, such as involuntary movements.

Your provider may ask you to send this information ahead of time or may review it with you during your appointment. 

What Happens During the Visit 

During your visit, your provider will ask you about any recent symptoms you have had. They will also observe your movements and assess your speech if these abilities have been impaired. You will be asked to demonstrate certain skills, such as your arm or hand coordination and strength. 

You may have some diagnostic tests during some of your visits, such as a swallowing or strength evaluation. You may also have ongoing intervention training via telehealth.

You and your provider will discuss the results of your evaluation and talk about the plans for your ongoing care, which may include medication, further diagnostic testing, and/or intervention, training, or a procedure. You and your caregivers will have a chance to ask questions and discuss your concerns and input about the plan. 

You may virtually meet with a coordinator after your appointment to schedule upcoming visits or tests. 

A Word From Verywell

Cerebral palsy is a lifelong condition. Medical care and interventions can have a positive impact on your ability to maintain a healthy life. Some of your continuing care can be facilitated with telehealth, which can be a convenient adjunct to your in-person care. 

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