Where physical therapy fits into corporate wellness

March 26, 2019 Janet Lee

You have trainers, nutritionists, pricey equipment, educational programs, and maybe even a nurse on hand as part of your corporate wellness offerings, but there’s one specialist you may be overlooking.

A physical therapist is unique in that he or she can help employees address current injuries, resolve minor aches and pains quickly, and head off future problems.

“One out of every two adults in the United States over 18 has some sort of musculoskeletal condition where they’re experiencing aches or pain, even though they may not formally be seeing a health care professional, so there’s a huge need there,” says Omi Iwasaki, a doctor of physical therapy and senior vice president of field operations for EXOS. “Physical therapy traditionally used to be hospital- or rehab-focused, but it’s increasingly becoming about population health and management. The trend is definitely moving toward proactive lifestyle management. Everyone can benefit from it.”

Beyond keeping employees healthy, a physical therapist may be able to reduce your annual health care spending. Research has shown that seeing a physical therapist before going to a specialist or trying to get an MRI can save thousands of dollars, which is usually why insurance companies require it before approving further interventions. Addressing smaller issues — shoulder aches, wrist pain, back soreness — before they get too serious also keeps employees on the job and productive.

Imagine an employee comes to a physical therapist with back pain. “If you catch it early, it will usually clear up so you can take something small and keep it small,” says Jim Godin, a doctor of physical therapy and director of rehabilitation for EXOS. “When pain progresses over time, it can become more systemic and start to impact the brain. Stress hormones are elevated, and attention and productivity start to suffer.” This affects all types of workers — from manual laborers to those at desk jobs. “If your back hurts all the time, you’re far less likely to care what’s on the computer screen in front of you,” Godin says.

In addition, having an on-site physical therapist means employees need to take less time off to get therapy. In many cases you don’t need a referral to see a physical therapist, at least for the initial sessions, but state and insurance rules vary.

Finally, having a “deep” lineup of wellness practitioners, including a physical therapist, is another way to show potential recruits that your company cares about its employees and values health. “Younger generations are very interested in being proactive about their wellness, especially since health care is so expensive now,” Godin says. “Offering things like on-site physical therapy can help you recruit top talent.”

Use these steps to add physical therapy to your corporate wellness program.

1. Pick a physical therapy model.

There are a few ways to go about offering physical therapy in your program. You can offer a free service available to whoever wants to take advantage of it, set up a cash system where the employee may pay a reduced fee, or allow the service to be billed through insurance, Iwasaki says. You’ll have to make sure the therapist is in network with one of your health insurance plans.

Beyond keeping employees healthy, a physical therapist may be able to reduce your annual health care spending.

Physical therapy can address smaller issues, like back soreness, before they get too serious.

2. Create space for physical therapy.

The physical therapy services or space shouldn’t be isolated or separate from your fitness facility. “The physical therapy services should be within or adjacent to the fitness facility,” says Iwasaki. “Treatment and services should also use the fitness floor and equipment, and physical therapists should help patients become familiar with and use the entire space and equipment as well as integrate with other specialists in the fitness center (see No. 3 for more on that).” Physical therapists can even offer educational or specialty group classes, such as back pain management, or themed classes for runners or other special populations.

By working hand in hand, trainers and physical therapists can create a continuum of care.

3. Organize physical therapy offerings with other services in mind.

“To truly be beneficial, there should be a continuum of care from rehab to performance,” Iwasaki says. If physical therapy is in its own “silo,” the services are purely transactional. For example, the patient comes in for a sore shoulder, gets some kind of therapy that’s focused solely on the shoulder, and then leaves.

Ideally, Iwasaki says, the physical therapist first determines the location and source of the pain, but, most importantly, determines the underlying cause of dysfunction. It’s important that the physical therapist looks at a full-body assessment as well daily, work, and recreational activities. To truly address the long-term management of and improvements in pain, the assessment must look at primary sources of pain as well as integrating changes into lifestyle and work.

In a corporate setting, it’s important to understand the specific work demands, including the employee’s work station setup and ergonomics. “An ideal situation is true integration with other practitioners, like a massage therapist, registered dietitian, and/or on-site fitness staff, allowing everyone involved to be on the same page,” says Iwasaki. “The most important goal is patient education and awareness so that the patient can take ownership and accountability for lasting results instead of just a quick fix.”

Creating a dedicated space in your fitness facility makes physical therapy services more convenient and more efficient.

By speaking the same language and working together, physical therapists and trainers can optimize results for employees.

On-site physical therapy can be a great tool for recruiting and keeping health care costs down.

4. Build communication between physical therapists and trainers.

By speaking the same language and working together, physical therapists and trainers can optimize results for employees. If a worker experiences pain, they can be assessed by a physical therapist. “The physical therapist can create a comprehensive plan to attack both the underlying cause of pain and the painful structure,” says Godin. “The therapist can then communicate general guidelines to the trainer who can create a program that complements the therapist’s treatment plan.” For example, if an employee comes in with a sore shoulder, the therapist and trainer can work together to ensure the employee can maintain, or even elevate, their level of fitness and well-being while rehabilitating.

5. Encourage physical therapists to venture outside the fitness center.

Just like you should be leveraging the other members of your corporate wellness team outside the fitness center, the physical therapist should get out to interact with and educate employees. They can lead warm-up exercises on the factory floor, do deskside assessments, or offer lunchtime presentations. The more employees know about the potential benefits of physical therapy, the more likely they’ll be to take advantage of the service.

About the Author

Janet Lee

Janet Lee, L.Ac., DACM, is a health journalist whose work has appeared in Self, Shape, Real Simple, Consumer Reports, SKI, and Cosmopolitan, among other publications.

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