When legislation passed for physical therapists to have direct access to patients and clients, it was cause for celebration. Outside of the profession, no one had a clue this was happening, and most clients do not know how much easier it made seeing a physical therapist.
Direct access means that a client can be seen by a physical therapist without a referral from a physician. The client then has the option to waive the therapist’s obligation to speak with their respective medical provider(s) or request that the therapist notify the physician’s office and provide communication regarding the client’s care.*
Most clients begin their physical therapy journey by seeing their primary care physician or an orthopedist. From there, they are often referred for imaging (x-rays and MRIs) and prescribed anti-inflammatory medication. Once the results of the imaging have returned, the physician makes the determination regarding the patient’s next steps. If there is something significant found on imaging, the patient may be referred to yet another provider, depending on what imaging reveals. The majority of the time, imaging is negative for anything concerning, and the patient is referred for physical therapy.
This sequence of events can take up to two weeks, costing the patient time and money that could have been directed towards actually fixing the problem. The longer a problem persists, the longer it takes to successfully treat it. With the majority of joint aches and pains being attributable to muscle weakness or tightness, starting physical therapy as soon as possible decreases the amount of time to recover.
Physical therapists are trained to screen for medical concerns that are masking as joint aches and pains. If a client comes to a physical therapist for evaluation, the therapist will ask a series of subjective questions to help direct the exam. If the client indicates red flags in their history, the therapist will perform further screening measures during the exam to determine if the client is appropriate for physical therapy treatment. If yes, intervention can begin immediately. If not, the physical therapist will direct the client to the correct medical professional. At this point, imaging and medication can be initiated if deemed appropriate by the medical provider.
Direct access to a physical therapist can provide quicker relief to a client, as it allows intervention to begin sooner than waiting to get a referral from a medical provider. Physical therapists are trained to screen for potential red flags indicating that a problem may not fall within their scope of practice, and to refer clients to the appropriate provider in this case.
If you have questions regarding whether or not initiating care with a physical therapist via direct access is appropriate for you, please reach out to Dr. Kopko.
* Direct access laws vary from state to state. Dr. Kopko will be able to inform you of your respective state’s status with this legislation.