How to Effectively Manage Related Services Teletherapy

Like many administrators, you probably felt a rug was yanked out from under you when COVID-19 came along last school year.

Female school-based therapist smiles as she sits in front of a laptop computer at home to conduct a teletherapy session.I felt that way, too—and, I was used to managing a remote workforce! The nearly 500 therapists of Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS) work in dozens of school districts across the greater Delaware Valley.

But, when the pandemic closed schools and we had to start delivering related services via teletherapy, one question circled through my mind: “What’s going on out there?” 

Our therapists were often trying to manage their own children while serving the students on their caseload. And, our corporate staff was also struggling because they couldn’t poke their head into an office next door to collaborate on tricky billing issues.

Since the pandemic began, I’ve tried to be flexible and sensitive. But, I felt and still feel a moral obligation to ensure we’re delivering the fiscally-responsible related services and cost-controlling program management we promise.

I’m sure you’re facing similar pressures. The good news is that you don’t have to stay in the dark simply because your services have moved online. We found ways to gauge our performance. You can, too.

How Does Data Help You Evaluate Your Program’s Performance?

I realized any clear picture of our related services teletherapy performance must come from data analysis. Fortunately, for almost 20 years, we’ve used our proprietary BudgetWatch™ technology to collect data on therapists’ efficiency and to manage costs for our clients’ programs. 

Analyzing this data would reveal:

  • The number of services delivered. 
  • The time taken to plan and document therapy sessions. 
  • The time spent in indirect service (creating online therapy content, home-based activities, parent resources, and so on).

What did we find?

Initially, therapist preparation time spiked. Although we gave our team plenty of treatment ideas and technology support, individualizing content for specific students took time. We also noticed a learning curve associated with mastering remote learning platforms.

But, then we started looking for larger trends. We discovered:

  • Most therapists adapted quickly to the online environment. 
  • Time was saved from not having to travel to multiple buildings and classrooms, which soon offset early increases. 
  • New billing guidelines helped therapists who still needed extensive prep and communication time to determine how much time they could bill.

When you’re evaluating your program, you, too, should look for trends, not isolated data points.

If you’re a PTS client, your BudgetWatchTM reports highlight trends for you. If not it’s still beneficial to dig into whatever data you have. Uncover persistent patterns or sudden shifts. This process will help yield accurate insights into how your program is running.

Are Our Students Getting Quality Therapy Online?

Related services teletherapy can’t perfectly replace in-person, one-to-one intervention. Nothing can. The value of a therapist’s ability to control environmental factors, bring specialized therapeutic equipment, and deliver services in context can’t be overstated. Because therapy had “gone virtual,” we were naturally concerned whether students were still getting a real benefit.

We found these strategies helpful for implementing quality controls:

Observing Sessions

Female special education administrator sits in front of chalkboard reviewing data from her related services program on laptop.The need to comply with FERPA made it difficult for managers to view live therapy sessions. But, many administrators we work with took the initiative and observed some live, online sessions and gave us feedback about their quality.

We also surveyed some pre-recorded sessions, then shared ideas about what worked and what didn’t.   

Keeping Communication Lines Open

Many of our client districts surveyed parents’ attitudes toward teletherapy sessions. This feedback let us pinpoint team members who needed extra support with technology, tools, and treatment ideas.

Overall, parents said they were learning more about their child and how to support them than ever before. The ability to connect with their child’s therapist on a weekly basis, give feedback, and get ideas proved a significant plus!

Collecting Data

Many clinicians say online therapy makes data collection more challenging. But, progress monitoring can’t stop.

One way forward is engaging parents, guardians, and other caregivers. Doing so makes them collaborators with our team in evaluating goals, modifying goals for the home as needed, and carrying over skill practice. The very act of collecting data also motivates parents to implement strategies.

We don’t yet know the longer-term effects of students’ prolonged absence from in-person instruction. But, if they lose skills and need additional measures to recover them, having accurate data on the progress they have or haven’t made will be invaluable.

What Does Positive and Productive Online Therapy Look Like?

We’ve been collecting data on how related services teletherapy alters therapist productivity. When we’ve seen reduced efficiency, difficulty setting up treatment groups is a key reason why.

For example, a typical PTS speech therapist provides 65-75% of face-to-face therapy sessions in small groups. In virtual therapy, that percentage dropped to 13%. Increased no-shows and coordinating students’ and parents’ schedules proved challenging. Therapists who’d typically see 12 or 13 students per day, were seeing only eight or nine virtually.

We also found our team needed more flexibility in dealing with families’ schedules than with school schedules, which typically establish patterns for classes and related services.

Coordinating timing with parents now occurred weekly—a notable shift from the “set it and forget it” scheduling at the start of a normal school year. Time spent consulting with, counseling and training parents also increased, often beyond the time on the IEP.

PTS Can Help You Strengthen Your Remote Related Services Program

Many schools are temporarily closed for in-person instruction as this school year starts. The administrative headaches, frustrations, and fears won’t suddenly vanish.

But, last spring’s painful start-up is behind us. We’ve learned a lot since then, that will make our clients’ related services teletherapy programs stronger.

Our relationships with families have reached a new level.

Our team members have grown in their technological skills, leading to continuous improvement in the quality of services delivered.

Our library of shared resources continues to give clinicians tools to facilitate productive online therapy.

And, we’ve discovered moving to a remote-learning model means oversight and quality controls become more important, not less.

Would you like to know more about how PTS can help your remote related services program become stronger? Click here to claim a free related services audit. We’ll show you steps you can take right away to control costs and improve efficiency without sacrificing any quality of service.

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