The 5 Biggest Trends Revolutionizing Physical Therapy in 2024

The Future of Physical Therapy in 2024

As we look ahead to a new year, physical therapy and pain management face both new and familiar challenges and opportunities.

The good news—and the most important takeaway—is that physical therapy professionals and organizations have the power to positively influence the future of the field. With that, there are new opportunities to improve individual and population health.

So let this article act as your game plan for action. Here are the trends to look out for in 2024!

#1: Addressing Physical Therapy Burnout Before It Destroys the Profession

Job burnout is a threat to physical therapists. Many physical therapists face high-volume workloads, seeing an average of three patients per hour, leading to professional burnout and secondary trauma. This issue contributes to a concerning 80% burnout rate among therapists. Addressing this requires a dual focus on individual and environmental solutions. Coping strategies and cognitive-behavioral techniques can help mitigate stress for physical therapists, benefiting both their mental health and patient outcomes. Professional improvements are also crucial for supporting the well-being of patients and providers. Proposed solutions include increased training for physical therapists in psychologically-informed care and efforts to alleviate external stressors, such as the burden of student debt. Recognizing the importance of balancing individual well-being and systemic changes is vital for sustaining a healthy and resilient physical therapy workforce.

#2: Physical Therapists Closing the Gap in Depression Care

Physical therapists are gaining recognition for their crucial role in managing mental health, emphasizing the mind-body connection. Exercise therapy, a key aspect of their interventions, stimulates the release of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters like endorphins. Physical therapists also regularly motivate and activate behaviors known to be positive and rewarding. Be on the lookout for low-intensity psychological interventions being designed by physical therapists to address mental well-being. The delivery of low-intensity interventions by physical therapists is recommended by the World Health Organization to address the enormous and growing shortage of mental health professionals. Physical therapists are in an optimal position to manage symptoms of anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress. The increasing demand for physical therapists in mental health settings stems from the necessity for integrated, transdisciplinary approaches to address the complex nature of mental health conditions. Where can you start as a PT? Depression care is ripe for physical therapy interventions. Even for patients receiving adequate treatment with psychopharmacology and/or psychotherapy, only 30 percent reach the treatment goal of full recovery or remission. The remaining 70 percent of patients with depression will either respond without remission (about 20%) or not respond at all (50%). Here’s the evidence supporting physical therapy in depression care.

#3: Artificial intelligence (AI)

Artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to revolutionize physical therapy and pain management by offering personalized and data-driven solutions. AI-powered systems can analyze vast amounts of patient data to create tailored rehabilitation programs, considering individualized needs and progress. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications, driven by AI, can enhance therapeutic interventions by providing immersive and engaging exercises. AI algorithms can predict pain patterns and responses to treatments, optimizing pain management strategies. Wearable devices equipped with AI can monitor patient movements, adherence to exercise regimens, and pain levels, allowing for real-time adjustments in treatment plans. Overall, AI in physical therapy and pain management holds the promise of improving efficiency, personalization, and outcomes by leveraging advanced analytics and technology.

#4: The New PRISM Pain Model

The American Physical Therapy Association along with the National Institutes of Health has advocated for new integrative models of pain management. Historically the physical therapy profession did not have a comprehensive model of pain management to use in DPT education or practice. Our team closed this gap in 2023 by developing and publishing PRISM: Pain Recovery and Integrative Systems Model. PRISM is an innovative approach that goes beyond the biopsychosocial model and helps clinicians with clinical decision-making and treatment.  By implementing PRISM, physical therapists can effectively address the multidimensional nature of pain, fostering resilience, promoting growth, and facilitating pain recovery in line with contemporary approaches to pain management. Our team has already presented PRISM at 10 physical therapy conferences with more sessions planned in 2024. Learn more about PRISM here!

#5: Primary Care Physical Therapy Practice

Primary care physical therapy is expanding due to a paradigm shift towards preventive, holistic, and patient-centered healthcare. With an emphasis on non-pharmacological interventions, physical therapists offer cost-effective solutions for pain management and chronic conditions, aligning with the trend of early intervention to reduce overall healthcare costs. The expanded scope of practice for physical therapists, allowing direct patient access, facilitates quicker and more efficient care. Collaborative care models, where physical therapists work alongside other healthcare professionals, enhance the interdisciplinary approach to patient well-being. Addressing musculoskeletal health concerns prevalent in primary care, physical therapy integrates seamlessly, responding to patient preferences for comprehensive and satisfying multidisciplinary care. This expansion reflects a broader healthcare evolution emphasizing holistic, patient-centric, and cost-effective approaches to improve overall health outcomes.

Physical therapy professionals hold a significant influence in shaping the future of their field. The key lies in taking incremental steps as a unified force, preventing stagnation amidst major obstacles.

The direction for the field does not adhere to a specific blueprint; instead, fostering a culture of widespread engagement is the overarching objective. To embark on this journey, physical therapists are encouraged to reflect on their professional goals, identify barriers, and take initial steps to transform opportunities into reality.

What trends are you seeing in physical therapy?

I’m looking forward to hearing your opinion and perspective. 

Joe Tatta, PT, DPT
CEO: Integrative Pain Science Institute

References

Patel RM, Bartholomew J. Impact of Job Resources and Job Demands on Burnout among Physical Therapy Providers. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(23):12521. Published 2021 Nov 28. doi:10.3390/ijerph182312521

Tatta J, Pignataro RM, Bezner JR, George SZ, Rothschild CE. PRISM-Pain Recovery and Integrative Systems Model: A Process-Based Cognitive-Behavioral Approach for Physical Therapy. Phys Ther. 2023;103(10):pzad077. doi:10.1093/ptj/pzad077

Schäfer SK, Thomas LM, Lindner S, Lieb K. World Health Organization’s low-intensity psychosocial interventions: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of Problem Management Plus and Step-by-Step. World Psychiatry. 2023;22(3):449-462. doi:10.1002/wps.21129

Tatta J. A Call to Action for Mental and Behavioral Health Stakeholders: Use Physical Therapists to Close the Gap in Depression Care. Phys Ther. Published online October 31, 2023. doi:10.1093/ptj/pzad147

McKay SE, Buono FD, Walker J, Glinski C, Printz DMB, Brienza R. Impact of interprofessional embedding of physical therapy in a primary care training clinic. J Interprof Care. 2021;35(4):532-537. doi:10.1080/13561820.2020.1798898

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