Artificial intelligence will affect nearly every industry in some way. Exactly how it will impact physical therapy is uncertain, but as we move through what is considered by some to be “the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” we are witnessing firsthand how digitization is rapidly changing various aspects of our lives. 

According to the American Physical Therapy Association, there is a nationwide shortage of physical therapists (PTs). A solution may be found in the industry-specific technological advances that are changing the way PTs do their job. 

How Artificial Intelligence Is Used in Physical Therapy

Meredith Castin is a physical therapist, blogger, and career strategist who frequently coaches other physical therapists who use AI in their physical therapy practice. Castin hopes to help people understand how AI in physical therapy is something to be excited about, rather than fear. With so many applications, AI can dramatically change the way physical therapists do their jobs, as well as how patients are treated for various ailments.

“Artificial intelligence can be implemented by physical therapists by using wireless motion trackers that are attached to patients’ bodies,” explained Meredith Castin, PT, DPT. “These trackers collect data about where the patients’ limbs are in space during various movements. Therapists can then provide real-time feedback, giving verbal cues for patients to adjust their movement patterns. For example, after watching a patient squat, a therapist might provide the feedback: “widen your stance.” There are several AI-backed remote care delivery platforms that are currently leveraging this technology.”

“PTs also use robotic devices that run on artificial intelligence platforms. These devices are becoming more common for upper extremity rehab (which encompasses arms, hands, and wrists). The artificial intelligence can take input sensed by the robot devices and provide data to the treating therapist, while adjusting the assistance of the device accordingly so the patient can continue to progress.”

According to Castin, there are also numerous technological breakthroughs used by companies to tackle specific difficulties faced by physical therapists. “Some companies have started digitally measuring ROM (range of motion) for various joints. I see this is a great technological advance, as the traditional goniometric measurement of ROM shows poor interrater reliability. In other words, two separate clinicians might get very different ROM measurements of the same joint doing the same movement. However, if you incorporate motion sensors and AI to take the same measurements, your findings between clinicians can be much more consistent.”

One of the more intriguing AI applications is the REAL® System, a gaming-based device that uses virtual reality to train patients. PTs can use this system with their patients, examine the results, and then use them as a guide for functional tasks in their treatment plans.  

Will Machines Replace Physical Therapists?

For physical therapists, in particular, artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to change the way patients are treated. But with so little information out there, many PTs are wondering if this technology is remarkable enough to replace them. 

When asked about the fear many current and future physical therapists have about whether their jobs will become obsolete as a result of artificial intelligence, Castin was quick to answer: “I choose to take the approach that we can work with this technology, using our clinical reasoning and experience in conjunction with AI data and tools to create an improved experience for any patient.”

Castin further explained that, as many seasoned physical therapists know, a patient’s comfort level with technology varies greatly. “It’s our job as PTs to adapt to a changing landscape so we can continue to meet patients where they are, using the right blend of clinical insights and AI data for each patient and their own unique needs.”

In the end, that’s the intended purpose of AI – to make people’s jobs easier by performing certain tasks more efficiently so that physical therapists and other people in the workforce can spend more time working directly with their patients.  


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