Like all healthcare providers, rehabilitation therapists have had to adapt and adjust to the extraordinary challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. These adaptations transcend immediate issues like COVID-related safety protocols and staffing concerns and have been largely concentrated on rapidly evolving therapy needs.
As a post-acute care leader, you must ensure that your staff is competent and flexible enough to meet these changes head on. This all starts with effective training.
Patient Preferences Shifting
We’re only now beginning to understand the full scope of how COVID-19 has changed the ways rehabilitation therapists interact with clients and provide the critical services so many rely on. The very means by which therapists deliver vital rehabilitation services has shifted in ways that appear to be lasting and permeate nearly every facet of care.
For example, many patients have become accustomed to virtual care models necessitated by the pandemic and want to continue things like virtual exercise and physical therapy regimens in the comfort of their own homes. This phenomenon is especially prevalent among the ever-growing population of elderly individuals who increasingly prefer to age in place.
And though the status of certain telehealth services components (like reimbursement and interstate restrictions) remains unclear after the temporary public health emergency declaration status expires, they continue to be immensely popular among many patients.
“We’re seeing that some patients really want virtual care,” explained Tiffany Shubert, PhD, PT, Senior Product Manager at Relias, during her recent Impact Nation session. She added, “They began seeing their doctors online because of COVID, and they want to keep it that way. But there are also portions of the older adult populations who want hybrid care models or only face to face visits. And we have to be able to address those needs and deliver care where our patients are.”
As Shubert points out, the variety of care that patients demand continues to vary and shift. Continuing education and training efforts must be provided to ensure flexible staff competency as these changes persist. This means providing superior instructional content that is both easily accessible for your staff and affordable for your organization.
Evolving Patient Populations, Behaviors
Care delivery preferences aren’t the only areas that have undergone dramatic changes since the pandemic began. Skilled nursing facilities have begun to see patient populations not typical of these settings. Individuals with higher acuity and younger clients with mental health needs are now more common and require different skill sets for both staff and management in order to ensure the best possible patient outcomes.
Regardless of setting, these same patients have also begun to engage in ways many providers have not previously seen. Value-based care provisions hinge on outcomes, and positive outcomes depend on patients taking ownership of their therapy. Telehealth also makes information and education more accessible for patients so they can take more active roles in their health outcomes.
Your direct care staff needs to encourage and foster this engagement, but they must be adequately trained and prepared for these kinds of interactions to ensure each one is fruitful. According to Shubert, organizations providing therapy must strive to help shift the paradigm from “I’m going to fix you” to “I’m going to help you fix yourself.”
Training for Flexibility, Communication
The need for effective, continuous learning cannot be overstated, and the pandemic continues to prove this out among rehabilitation service providers the world over. And being agile enough to pivot and adjust to patient needs that remain in flux is the key to the best possible patient outcomes.
Recent findings in the 2021 State of Healthcare Training and Staff Development Report show the importance of flexibility among staff. Respondents to the survey indicated an “inability to match shifting needs” as one of their organization’s weaknesses within current staff development and training efforts since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“Lack of communication” was another notable finding among respondents, indicating that there is work to be done where consistent dialogue across entire organizations is concerned. And though being “adaptable to changing needs” is cited as a top strength of staff development and training since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the survey results clearly show considerable room for improvement.
For instance, more patients are opting for care in outpatient and home settings instead of skilled nursing facilities. In light of that trend, therapy organizations are shifting therapists to those settings as well. With those shifts, therapists may need additional education to ensure that they can be confident and successful in their new practice settings.
Making the Most Difference
Whether considering occupational and physical therapy or speech-language pathology and respiratory therapy, the role that rehabilitation therapists play in the recovery and wellness of their patients is immense.
Because of the inherent reciprocal relationship between therapists and their patients, it’s essential that therapists continue to stay up to date on evidence-based practices so they can deliver the absolute best care. Organizations must also assess the range of patient conditions coming through the door and assign learning that has been specially designed to build and nurture the skills necessary to treat those conditions.
With such targeted staff development, rehabilitation therapists stand to influence the most favorable results. As Shubert noted in her Impact Nation session, “One thing that we still know for sure is that rehabilitation therapy can have a huge impact on patient outcomes, and we are definitely going to continue to make sure therapists are prepared to practice at the top of their license.”
Therapy Practitioners: The Path From Competency to Proficiency
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