Direct Access

chart showing cost savings of direct access to physical therapy

What is Direct Access?

Direct access refers to the ability of patients to be evaluated and treated by a physical therapist without being referred by a doctor or other healthcare practitioner. If you feel you have a problem that may benefit from the skilled services of a physical therapist, you can refer yourself to physical therapy for treatment. Sometimes direct access is called self-referral.  In the United States, provisions for physical therapy services are governed by each individual state through a "state-practice" act. The practice act is legislation that outlines how physical therapy services will be delivered. In the state of North Carolina direct access has both been approved by state legislation and insurance companies have accepted this and reimburse without a referral being needed. 

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) has lobbied successfully in many states to help change the law to allow patients to have direct access to physical therapy. By having direct access in each state, physical therapists are recognized as licensed professionals of choice to initially manage musculoskeletal and movement disorders in patients. You can check to see if your state allows direct access to the APTA's website.

Why Is Direct Access Important?

Healthcare is expensive. It seems that with every passing year, more money is being spent on healthcare, with no objective data that patients are achieving better outcomes. A system that allows the patient to directly seek the services of a physical therapist can help save healthcare dollars by eliminating unnecessary tests or other specialist referrals. Many conditions can be successfully evaluated and treated with no expensive diagnostic testing. Visiting your physical therapist directly allows you to start on treatment right away with very little risk of further injury. Physical therapy is a low-cost value-packed healthcare service.​

Speedy treatment is a critical factor for recovering from many injuries or pains. Unfortunately, because of high co-pays and deductibles, or even a lack of insurance, many people will avoid getting their condition looked at by a professional. Only when their injury disrupts their daily life do they make a phone call to their doctor’s office. However, an appointment with your physician is often only available weeks later, letting the situation exacerbate. The purpose of direct access is to expedite this process and allow a physical therapist to properly treat patients. In addition, a visit to the doctor may result in X-rays and prescriptions for pain relievers that do not tackle a patient’s ailment directly. Your doctor, after a lengthy period of time, may even end up referring you to physical therapy anyway.

Is Direct Access Safe?

You may be concerned that bypassing your physician is unwise for your health, but that is not true. Today’s physical therapists are doctorate-level medical professionals whose training and education make them more than qualified to not only conduct initial evaluations, but also to recognize when a patient’s medical needs fall outside of their practice scope.  Physical therapists are trained to recognize "red flags" that may signal the need for more invasive medical intervention. In those cases, referral to your physician or healthcare provider is made immediately.

How Do You Get Started?

If you are suffering from a musculoskeletal or neurological condition that causes functional movement limitations, use your best judgment when deciding which healthcare practitioner to see. A visit to your local physical therapist is a safe place to start on the road to recovery, and you can schedule a phone call or consultation to decide if it is right for you.

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