According to Scottish Government statistics, physiotherapy accounts for 75 per cent of outpatient activity within the NHS. This amounts to a staggering 400,000+ physiotherapy referrals per annum in the public sector alone. The huge demand for outpatient care has an obvious knock-on effect on waiting times. If you examine the various health boards around Scotland, you will find some lists approaching a six-month wait before an individual is seen and assessed. This may appear shocking; however it has become the norm within public health throughout the UK.
Issues like this have serious consequences for both individuals on a one-to-one patient level and also to the general population on a larger socio-economic scale. The longer an individual waits for treatment the more chronic their particular injuries become. This involves development of secondary complications; altered posture and gait, habitual movement adaptations, reliance on pain medication, increased scarring of soft tissue due to poor independent management, secondary injury to other areas due to compensatory activity, and the list goes on.
This poses problems for the patient directly, however the wider implications include loss of work hours and potential earnings for both individuals and employers, increased financial stress, increased carers stress for partners and family members, and increased numbers requiring financial support and benefits. This is so prevalent that individuals with musculoskeletal conditions/injuries are the second largest group (22 per cent) in receipt of incapacity benefit throughout Scotland. The sum of all of this equates to large emotional and financial strain on both the individual and the state.
The large demand for treatment on the public health service creates a market for private healthcare as an alternative. Here the public pay to access healthcare quickly and with minimal waiting times. The pressure on the public health service and lack of access to timely treatment creates a scarcity. Those looking to escape the long waiting periods of the NHS see no alternative but to shoulder the financial burden of paying for healthcare. Prices have crept up in this sector in recent years. Some outpatient providers within the musculoskeletal remit can be found charging upwards of £60 for a single treatment session. Yet if, for example, you are self-employed and cannot afford to be off work, these high fees are often unavoidable. This level of financial output is often not sustainable and cost certainly adds up after a number of sessions.
To many it may seem that their options are limited. Sit, wait and endure for the public health service, or subject yourself to hefty fees within private healthcare. Thankfully a new concept is gaining momentum within physiotherapy and outpatient care. A number of new companies have arrived on the scene providing a new angle of access to physiotherapy through the internet. Online physiotherapy enables the public to access assessment and advice from professional chartered physiotherapists whilst bypassing the problem of waiting lists and slicing the cost. The process of online physiotherapy does not differ very much from the initial stages of traditional physiotherapy. Patients are questioned in depth regarding their condition and from this information the physiotherapist forms their clinical impression. This enables them to provide appropriate advice regarding how best to manage each particular ailment.
‘Online’ physiotherapy is not designed as perfect alternative to its predecessor, face-to-face physiotherapy. However, it fills a gap and addresses many of the current healthcare shortfalls across the UK.
Robert Rolston is a chartered physiotherapist @murphthemorph