Therapy For Patients with Special Needs Goes Virtual

Lisa Osborne’s son uses speech therapy. She’s also a pediatric physical therapist who helps families with young patients who have special needs.

So, when telehealth became an option for her as a caregiver and provider, she jumped at the new technology.

Now Osborne is using a computer and a baby doll to show parents how to help their children move. She then gets to watch as parents try the movement on the other side of the screen.

“I thought, ‘how wonderful it is to get parents more hands-on,’” says Osborne, who works in Chicago. “They’re almost forced to do it more with telehealth. There are other times I want to come through the screen to help you.”

Telemedicine has seen an uptick as medical offices shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic. To keep patients and doctors safe from spreading germs, some pediatric offices are only seeing well visits while others are seeing patients only using computer platforms.

For therapy appointments and pediatric check-ins, telemedicine has been a boon.

Brandi Norum has a 20-month-old who sees therapists for feeding therapy and early intervention. After three feeding therapy appointments through telemedicine, she had mixed reviews because of poor connection.

“It’s hard with feeding therapy in particular I think, because the therapist really needs to be present and in his face to see what his tongue is doing and how he is swallowing,” Norum says. “It is nice for her to be able to give us new ideas to try to get through the week, though.”

Doctors have found that using telemedicine allows them to see into a patient’s home, helping them get an idea of what the patient sees and how he or she interacts in a comfortable environment.

“You don’t usually get an insider look like that,” says Dr. Katherine Riff, a pediatrician with Alzein Pediatrics. “The kids do seem to be more relaxed when they’re at home.”

In-home visits through telemedicine can cut down on anxieties that patients have seeing a doctor – or many doctors – and relieve the tension.

Parents are also asked to be more active participants in their child’s therapy.

“Now that people are having the time while at home, they make (therapy) a priority on a daily basis,” Osborne says. “For some things, I have seen an increase in skills in some of my kids. That’s pretty huge for a child that needs a big mobility gain.”

The time – and aggravation of schlepping two kids to each appointment – makes telehealth a win for Norum.

Not only has her son been able to have his therapy appointments over the computer, she has had personal appointments with her general practitioner, saving time and her own health.

“I wish that doctors gave you this option all the time,” Norum says. “I have two small kids that I always have to bring with me to all of my appointments, and it’s so much safer to do it this way! I am also grateful that they are offering some kind of therapy and support for my son with his feeding issues, but unfortunately, it’s not the same as the real thing, and I am a little scared that he (would) lose out on a few months of therapy and regress.”


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