After initial pain, therapy business is on the mend

  • A physical therapist at Sport & Spine Physical Therapy, Inc. in Portsmouth works with a patient while wearing a medical-grade mask. —Courtesy

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 4/4/2021 1:00:16 PM

The week before the state shutdown last March, 192 patients visited Sport & Spine Physical Therapy, Inc., to be treated by Dr. Chris Campbell and his team of six employees. Campbell has been in business for 17 years, and that was among the busiest weeks. A few days later, however, business at the Portsmouth clinic plummeted.

“We got as low as 50 to 55 visits in a week,” Campbell said.

At the beginning of 2020, Sport & Spine Physical Therapy, Inc. had moved into a new space. It was bigger than their old location and, importantly, didn’t have any shared entrances or waiting rooms. With a medical background and the new, safer space on his side, Campbell was confident that he could keep treating patients safely. Still, patients were wary about coming in for treatment that they saw as non-essential.

Campbell knew that he had to make people comfortable coming in the door, not only for the sake of his business, but in order to keep his patients healthy. He extended patient appointments from 30 minutes to 40, in order to have fewer people in the clinic at a time and to allow for cleaning between appointments. Both practitioners and patients have appreciated the longer time slots, Campbell said.

“We’re giving patients a better experience, and the clinicians like that time versus having a few more patients a day,” he said.

However, it came at a cost, with therapists seeing fewer patients each day. At the same time, Campbell’s attention was diverted from treating clients, as he tried to keep up with the ever-changing health and safety guidelines during COVID. With the number of patient visits slowly creeping back up during the summer, Campbell realized that he had to take a risk and hire another staff member.

“I’m still not sure it was the right move,” he said. “I’m crossing my fingers.”

Like many healthcare providers, Sport & Spine Physical Therapy started offering telehealth appointments. Right now, only 5% of appointments are done remotely, but Campbell said that there have been benefits to doing therapy from home.

In the clinic, patients have a space designed specifically for physical therapy. It can be tricky to translate the exercises that they learn at the clinic to their homes, where they might have insufficient space or equipment. With telehealth, the therapist can see exactly what space a patient is working with at home. They’re able to offer recommendations about how to adjust exercises or make a setup like a home office more ergonomic.

“Things like that have really been a surprise for patients,” Campbell said. “We’ve got a lot of positive feedback about what telehealth can be.”

If insurance companies will continue reimbursing for telehealth at the same rate they pay for in-person appointments, Campbell plans to keep offering remote appointments.

However, telehealth doesn’t work for everyone, including Medicare patients, who are mostly older. Prior to the pandemic, 35% of patients at Sport & Spine Physical Therapy were on Medicare. In the past year, that number has dropped, Campbell said. Older patients are afraid of coming into the office, but often aren’t comfortable with telehealth appointments either.

“Some will do it, but others don’t like it or don’t have the computer savviness. Just the notion of it scares them,” Campbell said.

As a doctor, he knows that there are people who are delaying seeking physical therapy during the pandemic. He worries about the impact that could have on health long term.

“People are suffering. They’re living with pain longer,” Campbell said. “It’s going to come to a head at some point. Primary care doctors have been busting at the seams for years now, and this is going to make it more acute.”

Campbell expects to see an increase in demand from patients as life returns to normal.

“There is going to be a group of people who are trying to do it all because they’ll say they missed a year of their life,” he said. That could lead to injury, especially for people who haven’t been as active over the past year as they typically would be.

For Campbell and his staff, there are signs of the new, post-pandemic normal. All eight of the staff are now fully vaccinated. They still use plenty of precautions with patients, but they’re able to relax a bit when they’re only with each other. Something as simple as having lunch together unmasked, but still socially distanced, is welcomed after a year of caution. The vaccine has also given the team peace of mind.

“You generally feel better, being so close to patients all the time,” Campbell said.

Still, he knows that the pandemic will affect business long term, by ushering in telehealth, changing appointment times and altering the health precautions that clinics keep in place.

“I’ve realized I would have to come out of this stronger on the other side. There’s not going to be going back to normal.”

(This story is part of the 50 Businesses, 50 Solutions series, shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative, that aims to highlight how business leaders across the state, from mom and pop shops, to large corporations have adapted to meet the challenges and disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus in the hopes others may be able to replicate these ideas and innovations. For more information visit

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