Homeworking and reduced activity during lockdowns have caused a significant increase in musculoskeletal issues. But with access to physiotherapy becoming difficult, Brett Hill considers whether online services could be the solution.
Musculoskeletal (MSK) disorders have always been a cause of workplace absence. But with Covid-related factors likely to increase the prevalence of such problems, and fewer in-person appointments being undertaken by OH professionals, employers need to rethink how they could be addressed.
MSK issues are a ticking timebomb and we need to address them before we have a whole generation of employees who are suffering with them.
Working from home is likely to have caused a significant increase in MSK issues. While some employees may be lucky enough to have a home office, others will be working from the kitchen table, a cramped corner, or even their sofa or bed. This is bound to exacerbate issues. Even for those in the office, hot-desking and shared workspaces mean that desks and seats are no longer set to each individual’s requirements. This means that MSK disorders are not just an issue for older employees, but affect all generations.
Prior to the pandemic, the 2019/2020 Labour Force Survey showed 480,000 workers suffered from work-related MSK disorders, with the loss of 8.9 million working days. While manual handling was still the most common cause of MSK disorder, awkward or tiring positions and keyboard work or repetitive action were also of concern.
Is there a solution?
Providing access to physiotherapy is a vital step to tackling the issue. Many MSK disorders can be helped and even cured through physiotherapy, which focuses on the biomechanical and structural rehabilitation of the individual.
With the restrictions put in place for the pandemic, access to physiotherapy has become more difficult and there is a large backlog in referrals. However, rather ironically, the pandemic has also hastened developments of some solutions.
Video conferencing has become the norm and online options are increasingly being used where previously they were not deemed feasible. It has even become commonplace for GP appointments to now be held online.
Embracing virtual physio
Virtual physio may seem an odd concept as physiotherapy may be seen as hands-on. But actually, manual therapy is just one element of a clinician’s work.”
Indeed, Ascenti undertook a study of 27,000 virtual physiotherapy patients who had accessed support before and during the pandemic and concluded that digital physiotherapy must become a significant part of the treatment mix post-Covid. The study captured patients’ openness to virtual treatment, pain improvements and satisfaction with outcomes. It found that virtual physio is just as effective and, in some cases, more effective, than in-person treatment.
There are several advantages to virtual physio:
- Convenience – no travel time, no childcare or time off work required
- Patient engagement – due to not receiving manual therapy, the patient recognises that the onus is on them to take control of their own rehabilitation. This accountability can be very motivating for the patient to carry out any exercises they are given
- Insight into home/work situation – A virtual appointment enables the clinician to gain a better understanding of the patient’s home and/or work environment. They can see what equipment and space is available and review the working set-up
- Patient-centred treatment – virtual physio enables a more holistic patient-centred focus, with the format encouraging more conversation
- Digital tools – apps can provide patients with a range of useful tools including demonstration videos, goal-setting facilities, progress trackers and reminders
- Appropriate referrals – digital triage avoids wasted time and improves cost-effectiveness.#
Over the last year or so, we have found that digital solutions can play a big part in saving companies time and money. Virtual physio is just one more example of how businesses can work smarter, not harder. Physio can and does work online and it is time for OH teams to embrace a new way of approaching MSK issues, which is only going to become more urgent.