After a bone marrow biopsy left her with back pain a few years ago, Naveen Khan was given a set of physical therapy exercises to follow. And like many patients, she forgot how to do most of them by the time she got home. Unlike most patients, she decided to create an app to help her remember.
A busy, single mom, Khan began to dream of an app to help her manage her physical therapy homework.
The KERA radio story.
“I wanted something that held my personalized prescription,” she says. “Something that would count for me and something that would remind me to do my exercises.”
She created PT PAL as part of the Dallas healthcare accelerator program Health Wildcatters. The app is meant to replace those standard sheets of paper with scribbled notes and diagrams patients are often sent home with.
Paper Gets Lost
Standard printed exercise instructions aren’t just frustrating for patients. Turns out providers can get fed up with them too.
“One of the problems is you print this off for them, they lose the page,” says Plano-based physical therapist Richard McGuire. “I tell them to stick it to the refrigerator and so that way they’ve got it, but most of the time they lose it.”
McGuire, who works at Village Physical Therapy, tries to help patients remember tricky exercises by coming up with catchy names. Instead of calling it the side-lying hip adduction, for example, its called the “Jane Fonda.”
The thing is, even if patients remember to do the “Charlie’s Angels” arm stretch (it looks like you’re holding a pistol), there’s no way to tell if patients actually follow through and complete them. So, McGuire uses the app PT PAL for two things. First, to help patients keep track of their homework. Second, to monitor them.
The Mobile Provider-Patient Link
Once a physical therapist signs up a patient on PT PAL (this requires only entering their name and email), the patient can download the app for free and access their personalized exercise plan. As the patient goes through the routine, feedback is sent to the provider.
Private physical therapists like McGuire pay around $35 a month to enroll an unlimited number of patients. Prices range though, from $10 to $70 depending on the size of the provider. CEO Kahn says ten hospitals are currently using PT PAL, including Texas Scottish Rite in Dallas.
Still, physical therapy apps are a relatively new concept, and one Eric Robertson says patients have to be careful with.
Opportunity, But Buyer Beware
Robertson, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso who researches the intersection of technology and physical therapy, says there’s great potential for apps to help make physical therapy more affordable and accessible – but right now, it is buyer beware.
“There’s also a lot of apps out there that are kind one size fits all, like an exercise for back pain,” Robertson says. “That doesn’t take into account what your specific back pain might look like.”
Another concern is privacy, which is why Robertson says checking for HIPAA compliance is important before using any app.
Apps like PT PAL, which are HIPAA compliant, he says, are helpful so long as they serve as an addition to traditional appointments, continuing your interaction with your physical therapist outside of the office.