A new law passed by the Indiana General Assembly gives Hoosiers direct access to physical therapists without referral from physicians and other providers. The bill, which became effective in July, is the result of an effort started in 1988 by the Indiana chapter of the American Physical Therapy Association, which wanted to make conservative, non-invasive therapy more accessible to the public.
Prior to July, Indiana residents could seek care from chiropractors, massage therapists and other healthcare providers without a physician referral—but not physical therapists. Despite their advanced education and training, physical therapists were off limits for direct access, even for patients who were willing to pay out-of-pocket.
Under current law, patients can see a physical therapist for up to 24 days without a referral. If they continue to need therapy beyond that, a physician’s referral is required.
Direct access is a huge win for public health, according to Pauline Flesch, executive director of Indiana University Health Rehabilitation Services. “Studies have shown that physical therapy saves money and is very effective for many conditions,” says Flesch, who was instrumental in lobbying for the bill. “If you have a musculoskeletal or biomechanical problem, a physical therapist has the qualifications to evaluate and treat those conditions.”
Not only is the new law good for public health; it may have a positive impact on Indiana’s brain drain problem. Prior to direct access, Flesch says many of Indiana’s physical therapy graduates were leaving the state, seeking a friendlier, more contemporary environment for practicing their profession.
Physical therapists (PTs) are among the most highly-educated professionals in healthcare, having completed clinical doctorate degrees. Flesch says that makes PTs ideal healthcare collaborators who can address a wide range of patient needs because they often specialize in certain types of care and practice in various settings.
In states where direct access has been available for years, early connections between patients and physical therapists have lowered the cost of treating some chronic health conditions. “We are starting to see people identify with a physical therapist for life,” she says. “Patients who’ve gone to a physical therapist for a musculoskeletal problem find it helpful to schedule periodic visits, particularly for chronic or recurring conditions.”
Here are some of the most common conditions, symptoms and diagnoses that typically respond to physical therapy:
- Back/neck pain
- Joint sprains and strains
- Balance improvement and prevention of falls
- Stroke recovery/neurological conditions
- Living with diabetes/exercise prescription
- Sports injury prevention/rehabilitation
- Inflammatory problems including rheumatoid arthritis
- Urinary incontinence/pelvic pain
To find a physical therapist near you, consult the American Physical Therapy Association or schedule an appointment with a physical therapist through IU Health Rehabilitation Services at 317 962-9830.