Policy Facilitators Versus Structural Barriers: Integrative Therapy Telehealth Changes in the United States During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Telemed J E Health. 2021 Sep 14. doi: 10.1089/tmj.2021.0167. Online ahead of print.


Introduction: Complementary and integrative therapies such as physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT) have been shown to improve functional outcomes and reduce opioid use. Due to the COVID-19 (or SARS-CoV-2 [severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2]) pandemic, these therapies are switching to telehealth and telemedicine practices, but access and utilization may be limited due to state policies and social vulnerability. Objective: The objective of this cross-sectional analysis was to evaluate the policy changes to telehealth provisions during the pandemic and the degree to which structural barriers could stymie the intended impact of these policies (e.g., PT/OT accessibility). Materials and Methods: Our analysis examined each states' telehealth policies in relation to PT/OT, ranked their telehealth readiness, identified relationships between existing policies and opioid prescription rates, and discussed how social determinants of health may be associated with telehealth availability and accessibility. Results: Approximately two of five states have both telehealth and telemedicine policies, whereas the majority of states had either a PT- or OT-specific policy in place. In addition, almost all states and the District of Columbia (90%) had general telehealth/medicine policy changes as a result of the pandemic. Discussion: Although such policy changes could reduce COVID-19-related barriers, the degree to which these policies can have a large and long-lasting impact may be contingent on structural barriers. Many states that lack broadband access and have high social vulnerability need more improvements to ensure the utilization of telehealth care, including PT and OT. Conclusion: Despite the policies expanding PT/OT telehealth capabilities, structural barriers may further exacerbate inequities in care accessibility.

Keywords: broadband; occupational therapy; pandemic; physical therapy; telehealth; telemedicine.