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Physical Therapy in Skilled Nursing Facilities

As we age, everyday movements become increasingly challenging and can even pose a threat to our safety, increasing the likelihood of a slip or fall. As a result, physical therapy in skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) is often considered one of the most important aspects of a senior’s SNF care plan. With a robust physical therapy program in place, residents have access to services that help reduce their pain, improve their mobility, and increase their independence, ultimately improving their quality of life.

What Role Do Physical Therapists Play in Skilled Nursing Facilities?

Physical therapists play an important role in the lives of residents with varying levels of mobility, including those who use a wheelchair or need a walker for assistance. By definition, skilled physical therapy in a SNF focuses on maintaining, promoting, or restoring lost physical function following a serious injury or illness.

Physical therapists in a SNF typically work with physicians and other medical professionals to design individualized therapy plans that address each resident’s unique needs. Plans may focus on building strength and endurance, improving flexibility, enhancing coordination, and more. These efforts help residents smoothly recover once they are discharged from the hospital, reducing the rate of unnecessary 30-day readmissions and saving SNFs from regulatory penalties.

Physical therapists also help residents prepare for life after their stay at a SNF. Working closely with residents and their families, these healthcare professionals identify potential hazards in the home and recommend safety equipment and home modifications as needed. Any information the physical therapist gathers about the resident’s post-SNF environment can be shared with the care planning team to help facilitate the development of a thorough discharge care plan.

Physical Therapy for Short- and Long-Term Residents

SNFs provide comprehensive rehabilitative support to both short- and long-term residents. While treatment plans must be tailored to meet each group’s unique needs, they generally address three critical areas:

  • Strength Training: Strength training helps seniors improve their mobility so they can resume routine activities, like moving around their home, holding their grandchildren, and lifting groceries. For many seniors, more mobility means more independence.
  • Fall Prevention: Falls often result in head injuries and broken bones for seniors, leading to potentially serious health complications. Physical therapy targets foot pain, muscle weakness, and impaired mobility in seniors to minimize their risk of falling.
  • Pain Management: Chronic pain is a major issue among seniors and has been linked to depression, sleep disorders, and reduced mobility. Physical therapy exercises get to the root of residents’ pain and help improve their quality of life.

SNFs provide a transitional space where residents seeking short-term care can recover following a serious injury or illness. Examples of physical therapy for short-term SNF residents include:

  • Strengthening limbs weakened by a stroke to help restore functionality.
  • Improving strength and flexibility in joints affected by arthritis to reduce inflammation, stiffness, and pain.
  • Restoring balance and mobility following an orthopedic injury, like a hip fracture, or a joint replacement procedure.

While physical therapy for residents in long-term SNF care is typically less intense than it is for those in short-term care, it still plays an essential part in improving a resident’s health and safety. Physical therapy for long-term residents can take many forms, including:

  • Assisting residents with degenerative conditions, including Parkinson’s disease and arthritis, to slow their disabling effects.
  • Engaging in balance and gait training to help residents with mobility issues move as safely as possible.
  • Helping residents who use wheelchairs maintain their range of motion and strengthen the muscles in their abdomen to improve their comfort levels.

What Does PDPM Mean for Physical Therapists?

Medicare’s Patient Driven Payment Model (PDPM) is designed to improve payment accuracy and ensure appropriate treatment by focusing on the individual patient rather than the volume of services provided.

Questions and myths surrounding PDPM and physical therapy have circulated since the model went into effect in October 2019. Contrary to what many believe, PDPM does not mandate a reduction in care, set productivity requirements, limit medically necessary physical therapy services, or require maximum use of group therapy. In fact, physical therapy continues to be very important under the new PDPM plan. The biggest adjustment with PDPM is that SNFs must consistently demonstrate the value and cost-effectiveness of physical therapy within their institutions.

Do Nursing Homes Provide Physical Therapy?

Although “nursing home” and “skilled nursing facility” are sometimes used interchangeably, they refer to two very different institutions. Nursing homes are often permanent residences for individuals in need of custodial care. SNFs, on the other hand, are typically defined by the skilled rehab and recovery services they offer and are more closely associated with short-term care (although they do provide long-term care to some residents, as previously noted).

While they do not offer as many rehabilitation services as skilled nursing facilities, nursing homes do provide physical therapy to help residents maintain their physical function and minimize their risk of falling. Physical therapy can also help improve mental health in both SNF and nursing home residents, as countless studies report the psychological benefits of exercise.

Enhance Your Physical Therapy Skills

Physical therapists play a critical role in SNFs, nursing homes, and beyond, improving residents’ mental and physical well-being and helping them avoid undue injuries. Like other critical healthcare services, quality physical therapy requires a combination of training and continuing education (CE).

With Relias, it’s easy to fulfill CE requirements for physical therapy. Our comprehensive courses and intuitive tracking systems help physical therapists elevate their clinical skills and stay up-to-date on industry best practices. With the right training, physical therapists can help transform their patients’ lives.


Therapy Practitioners: The Path From Competency to Proficiency

In this webinar, we discuss ways to assess and document competencies. Therapy practitioners can explore the importance of continuing to enhance their skills so they move from novice toward expert status.


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