Musculoskeletal (MSK) disorders have always been a cause of workplace absence. With Covid-related factors likely to increase the prevalence of such problems and also making in-person appointments harder to access, employers need to rethink the solution.
Brett Hill, distribution director for Towergate Health & Protection, said: “MSK issues are a ticking time-bomb. We need to address them now before we have a whole generation of employees who have suffered with MSK disorders from Covid restrictions. This requires a rethink in how we approach this type of care requirement. Virtual physio may well be the answer for many. It may surprise some employers to hear, but virtual physio is possible, and it does work.”
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 set up, 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. And, along with spending an increasing amount of time at desks, this means that MSK disorders are not just an issue for older employees but affect all generations.
Extent of the problem
Prior to the pandemic, the 2019/2020 Labour Force Survey showed 480,000 workers suffering from work-related MSK disorders, with the loss of 8.9million working days1. While manual handling was still the most common cause of MSK disorder, this was followed by awkward or tiring positions and keyboard work or repetitive action. All of which are only likely to increase once Covid-factors have come to the fore.
Solutions to the issue
Providing access to physiotherapy is a vital step. 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 a big backlog has been created. While Covid has created these delays and may also be a reason behind a rise in MSK issues, ironically the situation has also hastened developments of some of the solutions.
Under the pandemic, employees have learned to maximise the potential of the internet. Video conferencing has become the norm and online options have been used where previously they were not deemed feasible. Indeed, it has even become commonplace for GP appointments to now be held online. In the same vein, physiotherapy can also be accessed online.
Embracing virtual physio
“At first thought, virtual physio may seem an odd concept, as physiotherapy may be seen as particularly hands on,” says Brett Hill. “But actually, manual therapy is just one element of a clinician’s work. Virtual physio can provide assessment and treatment for the majority of non-complex MSK conditions and with the time-savings this can create, businesses need to embrace online care.”
Indeed, Ascenti undertook a study of 27,000 virtual physiotherapy patients2 who had accessed support before and during the Covid pandemic and concluded that digital physiotherapy must become a significant part of the treatment mix post Covid. The study by the independent provider of physiotherapy 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.
Advantages of 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.
Hill concluded: “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 employers to embrace a new way of approaching the MSK issue, which is only going to become more urgent.”