Telehealth at the School of Physical & Occupational Therapy

Lessons learned using telehealth during a pandemic and looking ahead to a brighter future

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty and researchers at the School of Physical & Occupational Therapy (SPOT) suddenly found themselves locked down at home. Very quickly, they learned how to continue teaching students on remote platforms and determined how best to pursue and adapt research work to the uncertain timeline ahead. Videoconferencing tools such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and WebEx quickly became very useful, allowing professors to teach and visually connect with their students. Clinical education for physical and occupational therapy students in fieldwork settings now had restricted site access, this presented challenges that involved innovative thinking and restructuring by the School’s clinical education teams. Rehabilitation science research projects which involved in-person participation of patients suddenly became impossible to continue.

Still in its infancy, telehealth, the provision of virtual healthcare services using different communication technologies, suddenly became a very feasible method for SPOT students to learn clinical skills virtually.

With the quick and impressive collaboration of community, clinical, academic and institutional partners, the occupational therapy clinical course and physical therapy placements were reorganized, approved and completed using telehealth and other digital methods to meet accreditation and regulatory standards, all while maintaining physical distancing for over 120 students in the rehabilitation programs. The Person-Centered Health Informatics Lab (PCHI Lab) obtained funding to pursue projects using telehealth and other virtual health platforms.

Reflecting on the past few months, Monica Slanik interviewed Dr. Zachary Boychuck, a Postdoctoral Fellow, about the PCHI Lab’s research during #COVID19 with to rapidly roll-out telehealth in the context of an Early Supported Discharge program for stroke.

How familiar were you with telehealth before the pandemic?

Zachary Boychuck OT, PhD (Post Doc, PCHI Lab): Not very familiar at all, I had just started my postdoctoral fellowship at the PCHI Research Lab, under the supervision of Dr. Sara Ahmed, in January 2020. My PhD research was not at all related to telehealth, and I wanted to develop additional knowledge and skills in an area I perceived to be ‘on the horizon’ in healthcare and research. Right place, right time! COVID-19 necessitated a paradigm shift towards incorporating telehealth into clinical practice.

What was one of the biggest challenges you faced when implementing telehealth into your practice, teaching, learning or research?

Zachary Boychuck OT, PhD (Post Doc, PCHI Lab): We were just about to launch an innovative study focusing on evaluating the implementation and scalability of telehealth solutions within the context of an Early Supported Discharge (ESD) program for stroke. When COVID-19 shut down the study, the ESD clinicians and administrators contacted us and expressed a keenness and desire to use whatever technology was available to ensure they could continue to provide clients and caregivers with services and support. We worked with the ESD clinical team to scale-down our initial study and ensured they had the necessary hardware and software required to rapidly implement telehealth into their clinical practice. The challenge was to get this done in a timely fashion!

Do you have positive advantages, silver linings you could share?

Zachary Boychuck OT, PhD (Post Doc, PCHI Lab): Working with the ESD clinical team to scale-down our initial study, implement the required technology and ensure the quality of care and services that clients in the ESD program received was not easy to do. The quick and seamless collaboration between all stakeholders, especially considering the ‘under pressure’ nature of the roll-out, was really inspiring to experience.

Do you see yourself continuing to use telehealth in the future?

Zachary Boychuck OT, PhD (Post Doc, PCHI Lab): Absolutely! Telehealth and telerehabilitation have seen a rapid increase in use, and the overall positive experience of clients and caregivers indicates it is here to stay. Its adoption across healthcare settings and clienteles will likely continue to proliferate. I feel it is important that we support healthcare professionals, clients, and caregivers in adapting to using telehealth optimally. I am excited to be at the PCHI lab where we are working with clinicians of the CIUSSS West-Central and SPOT colleagues on OT and PT students’ and clinical preceptors’ experiences with using telehealth during clinical practicums.

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